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FCC Proposal Would Expand Broadband to Rural Healthcare Providers

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, July 16, 2010

The Federal Communications Commission Thursday proposed new rules for allocating $400 million to improve Internet connectivity in rural health providers.

If the rules are approved, more rural doctors, nurses and public and non-profit hospitals and clinics would be eligible to receive shares of the funds, so that advanced healthcare could be provided to patients no matter where they live, the FCC said in a statement.

The money, to be allocated under the Universal Service Rural Health Care Broadband Reform program, is in addition to $795 million in stimulus funds, some of which will help hospitals in four areas expand broadband infrastructure.

Under current rules, restrictions on how the money can be spent are strict. Although the funds have been available every year for more than a decade, many providers have not applied for them or been eligible.

"Too many clinics and hospitals lack affordable access to even basic broadband connectivity to handle the most basic of telehealth tasks, like managing medical records, transmitting an X-ray or MRI, or consulting remotely with a doctor," the FCC statement says. "In fact, nearly 30% of federally funded rural health care clinics can't afford secure and reliable broadband services.

"Shockingly, only 8% of Indian Health Service providers even have access to the broadband they would need to deliver advanced health care to their patients."

The rulemaking proposal seeks to make changes in these three ways:

  • Establish a new, more useful program that increases funding to 50% of the monthly recurring costs, up from 25%, for all types of broadband services, including dedicated point-to-point services. The existing program only supports mass-market connections.
  • Invest 85% of the construction costs for new or upgraded broadband networks for healthcare providers in areas of the country that lack broadband infrastructure adequate for health IT needs, with participants investing 15%.
  • Expand the number and types of eligible health providers to include skilled nursing facilities, renal dialysis centers and off-site administrative offices and data centers that support care providers.

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