A pair of House lawmakers introduced legislation Friday that would give the Federal Communications Commission $2 billion to expand a broadband subsidy program for health care providers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act — backed by Reps. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Don Young, R-Alaska — would more than triple the agency’s $605 million budget for the Rural Health Care Program and make more health care providers eligible for support.
While the Clinton-era program is aimed at boosting rural providers’ access to telecom and broadband services, Friday’s bill would broaden the initiative to include urban and suburban facilities as well as temporary centers that have been propped up to respond to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“The coronavirus has only increased the need for high-quality and reliable internet connectivity as health care is increasingly delivered through telehealth and health care professionals depend on broadband for every aspect of their operations,” Eshoo said in a statement Friday.
Young added that the bill “takes crucially needed steps to ensure that health care providers in Alaska and across the country have the internet access they need to keep our communities safe.”
Telecom organizations such as ACA Connects, USTelecom and NCTA threw their weight behind the initiative, as did several telehealth groups and local government associations.
“This is a smart and targeted investment surge by Reps. Eshoo and Young and exactly what we should be doing during this public health emergency,” said USTelecom president and CEO Jonathan Spalter in a statement.
ACA Connects, a prominent cable and internet trade group, said its members “have built high-performance broadband networks and provide service in the areas of many health care providers,” and are “well-positioned to provide this service right away.”
The FCC is already moving ahead with plans to increase telehealth support during the pandemic, as it announced Friday that it will open a portal Monday for providers to vie for a cut of a $200 million telehealth subsidy fund appropriated by a recent coronavirus rescue package.
The COVID-19 Telehealth Program, created under the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act, is aimed at helping health care providers offer connected care services to patients at their homes, as most Americans are sheltering in place due to the outbreak.
“The FCC is moving quickly to distribute this funding to help health care providers and patients across the country during the coronavirus pandemic,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release Friday. “Given the importance of social distancing, telehealth is more important than ever, so we are pleased to do our part to help healthcare providers purchase telecommunications, broadband connectivity, and devices necessary for providing connected care.”