New FCC fund to boost rural broadband connections

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The Federal Communications Commission has earmarked up to $400 million for the new Healthcare Connect Fund to help expand health care providers' access to high-bandwidth connections.

The existing Rural Health Care program, established in 1996, hasn't done enough to provide healthcare facilities with remote access over high-speed networks, the agency says in an announcement. It points to a report issued last summer highlighting successes from its Rural Health Care Pilot Program, launched in 2006, to better understand how to understand how to support high-speed networks. Those include a South Carolina consortium that saved $18 million in Medicaid costs by using telepyschiatry, and a group of health care providers in the Midwest that saved $1.2 million in patient electronic intensive care unit services.

The new fund, it says, will improve access by means, including:

  • Removing artificial limitations on technology and provider type that hampered legacy universal service health care support.
  • Encouraging consortia between smaller rural health care providers and urban medical centers to enable remote hospitals and clinics to draw on the medical, technical and administrative resources of larger providers.
  • Increasing fiscal responsibility by requiring participants to contribute 35 percent of the costs, while offering lower rates through group buying.

It also will launch a new competitive pilot program to expand broadband networks to skilled nursing facilities. Up to $50 million over three years will be available for those pilots.

In August, the FCC touted the benefits of the Rural Health Care Pilot Program, which paid up to 85 percent of deployment and construction costs to upgrade to faster bandwidth connections-10 Mbps or faster, compared with 3 Mbps or less under the FCC's permanent Rural Health Care program.

The American Hospital Association, however, urged the FCC to reduce the administrative burden in applying for and administering the pilot program to make it more manageable for small hospitals. 

The promise of telemedicine to expand the reach of services remains unfulfilled without broadband services to support it, FierceMobileHealthcare's Greg Slabodkin wrote, citing a November 2010 GAO report that found the FCC had done too little to access providers' needs and to set effective performance measures for the pilot program.

Even the mHealth Task Force set up by the FCC urged the agency to do more. It must take a leadership role to enable mobile health, wireless health and eCare technologies, the task force said.

"Critical to the success of an improved healthcare system is access, availability, interoperability and capacity of wired and wireless services that are defining the future delivery of healthcare," the task force concluded.

To learn more:
- here's the announcement
- read the pilot program report

Related Articles:
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AHA: Reduce administrative burden from rural broadband program
FCC: Broadband pilot for rural providers a success
FCC needs leadership role for increasing mHealth adoption, task force says