Bipartisan RURAL Act Would Support Telehealth in Underserved Areas

In an already-busy Congress for telehealth-related legislation, two senators have added yet another bill to the steadily growing list. As mHealth Intelligence first reported, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), both longtime advocates for telehealth (and co-authors of the CONNECT for Health Act, also introduced this session), recently introduced the Reaching Underserved Rural Areas to Lead on Telehealth (RURAL) Act, which is designed to increase the affordability of broadband service for providers treating patients in rural communities. Better access to broadband, Sen. Schatz noted in a joint press release with Sen. Wicker, “is good news for anyone who cares about expanding access to health care in Hawai‘i and other rural areas across the country.”

The legislation, Sen. Schatz’s office explains in the press release, would allow for the provision of broadband service at a discounted rate to practitioners who are members of telehealth consortia and are mostly treating patients located in rural areas, even when the providers themselves are in non-rural areas. (Currently, rural consortia members receive a 65 percent discount on broadband service.) Essentially, as Sen. Schatz notes, the bill, which was first introduced in the 114th Congress, “will give telehealth service providers better incentives to serve more rural areas.” For his part, Sen. Wicker highlighted the legislation’s potential economic benefits. “Telehealth services are critical to increasing rural Americans’ access to quality care,” he said in the release, pointing to the work being done in his own state. “Mississippi is leading the nation in developing telehealth technology. Our health-care providers have demonstrated that targeted investments in telehealth can increase access to life-saving services and drive down costs.”

The importance of broadband coverage for the provision of telehealth services—and for health outcomes generally—has been a recent key area of focus for many rural health care advocates. Earlier this year, the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), and other organizations urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prioritize the expansion of broadband access as a way of addressing health care disparities. As we noted at the time, AMIA encouraged the agency in a letter to consider broadband access “a social determinant of health,” given its importance to telehealth and other mobile health technologies, as they craft broadband policy. And last month, a report from the FCC’s Connect2Health initiative found an increase in the number of Americans residing in so-called “double burden” counties, where people experience both limited access to high-quality broadband Internet and significant prevalence of chronic disease. Testifying before a Senate committee last month, CTeL Board member Dr. Karen Rheuban, who heads up the University of Virginia’s telehealth program, cited the report in urging lawmakers to step up their investment in rural broadband. “Affordable broadband connectivity is without question, the requisite underpinning of our telemedicine program, and as such, these efforts have changed the standard of care in rural Virginia,” she told committee members.

Click here to read the mHealth Intelligence article on the RURAL Act.

Click here to read the press release from Sen. Brian Schatz on the RURAL Act.

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