April 11, 2020 – A bill submitted to Congress on Friday aims to set aside $2 billion specifically to improve broadband connectivity for telehealth programs to tackle the Coronavirus Pandemic.
The Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act (HB 6474), introduced by US Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Don Young (R-AK), would enable the Federal Communications Commission “to expand telehealth and high-quality internet connectivity at public and nonprofit healthcare facilities, including mobile clinics and temporary health facilities deployed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” according to a press release.
“The Coronavirus has only increased the need for high-quality and reliable internet connectivity as healthcare is increasingly delivered through telehealth and healthcare professionals depend on broadband for every aspect of their operations,” Eshoo said. “The Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act ensures healthcare providers around the country can afford internet connectivity as they respond to the worst pandemic of our lifetimes.”
The money would be used to bolster the FCC’s Healthcare Connect Fund Program (HCFP), which subsidizes 65 percent of broadband costs for eligible rural healthcare providers. If passed, the bill would increase that subsidy to 85 percent, streamline administrative requirements and expand the program to include rural, urban and suburban healthcare providers, including temporary and mobile facilities set up to deal with the pandemic.
The bill is backed by the USTelecom trade association and a coalition of 48 organizations, including the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), the Avera health system, the California Telehealth Network, the New England Telehealth Consortium, the Healthcare Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS), the Personal Connected Health Alliance (PCHA) and Stanford Health Care.
“This bill has been carefully crafted to be technology-neutral and provider-neutral,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Congressional leaders. “Under the bill, all public and non-profit health care providers would be eligible for funding, whether located in urban, suburban or rural markets. Healthcare providers in rural regions must be able to share Electronic Medical Records, engage in remote patient monitoring, and connect to research facilities and medical specialists in urban hospitals to ensure that telehealth services reach everyone. In short, no healthcare provider should be forced to curtail their telemedicine operations because of a lack of funding to pay for the underlying broadband connectivity.”
Broadband access and reliable connectivity have long been among the main challenges to telehealth adoption, particularly in rural areas. Healthcare providers need reliable high-speed connectivity to ensure their telemedicine and mHealth platforms operate at peak efficiency, while consumers need broadband to access those services.
Coronavirus relief passed by Congress over the past month and a half have included significant funding for broadband connectivity and telehealth expansion. The third bill, The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (HR 748), signed into law on March 30, set aside $200 million for the FCC to develop a COVID-19 Telehealth Program.