The Push for Rural Broadband Coverage Continues

By now, it’s been well established that access to high-quality telehealth care is virtually impossible without access to high-quality broadband Internet. And it’s been equally well established that, while progress has been made when it comes to the expansion of U.S. broadband infrastructure, work remains to be done in terms of getting people connected. Indeed, studies have shown that more than 30 million Americans still lack access to high-speed broadband Internet, including as many as 39 percent of people residing in rural areas. With these statistics in mind, advocates in recent months have been urging increased investment in rural broadband infrastructure. Most recently, as mHealth Intelligence first reported, the School, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition has weighed in, writing to leaders of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to encourage an increased focus on rural broadband as a way of improving health outcomes. “Rural America is facing an enormous challenge when it comes to health care,” the Coalition letter states. “Over 80 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, and there is a severe shortage of doctors in rural areas, both of which raise the cost of providing medical care in rural communities.”

The signers of the letter include representatives of state and regional telehealth networks, tribal organizations, and advocacy groups such as the American Telemedicine Association (ATA). They emphasize in particular the need to increase funding for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Rural Health Care (RHC) program, which has been capped at $400 million per year since 1997—not adjusted for inflation. Given that many rural health clinics seeking to provide care to underserved communities lack the necessary bandwidth to most effectively do so, the RHC is a crucial resource. But with applications for funding having gone far above that cap in the past two fiscal years, the fund “is now facing an unprecedented crisis that is limiting its effectiveness,” SHLB Coalition members explain. “The shortage of funding resulted in pro rata reductions in support to many rural telehealth networks in FY 2016, and these reductions in support caused rate increases for many health care providers.” What’s more, the “uncertainty about future RHC funding” has even caused “several telehealth networks [to cancel] their plans to expand into rural markets.” All of that, in the Coalition’s view, points to a need to raise the cap in the next fiscal year. “Increasing the available funding for the RHC program is one of the most important steps that Congress and the FCC can take to improve quality of life in rural America,” they assert.

As we’ve previously reported, the push for rural broadband has been a common theme throughout the past year, at both the federal and state levels. Earlier this year, the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA), the American Telemedicine Association (ATA), and other organizations urged FCC to prioritize the expansion of broadband access as a way of addressing health care disparities. 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. Over the summer, Microsoft advocated for a $10 billion federal-corporate partnership to better connect rural consumers to broadband services. And in Congress, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), both longtime advocates for telehealth, 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.

Click here to read the mHealth Intelligence article on the SHLB Coalition letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. 

Click here to read the SHLB Coalition letter to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

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