WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR) is among a group of lawmakers urging Congressional leaders to include $2 billion in the next coronavirus relief package to help health care providers expand telehealth services by improving their access to broadband.
Telehealth allows health care providers to treat patients safely without putting themselves or their patients at risk of contracting COVID-19 and has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, many providers – especially in rural and hard-to-reach communities – lack the resources to handle this increase in demand for telehealth services.
In a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Boozman and his colleagues call for $2 billion in additional funding to the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program.
“The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the need to expand telehealth. It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus,” the senators wrote.
The RHC program is the only federal program that supports broadband deployment at urban and rural health care provider locations. These new funds would expand the RHC Program to support non-rural and mobile health care providers, eliminate administrative red tape slowing down the process of obtaining broadband connectivity and provide more resources to help providers increase their broadband capacity.
Boozman is a co-founder of the Senate Broadband Caucus and is a champion for additional investment to expand broadband in rural areas.
The letter was led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). Along with Boozman, it was signed by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Angus King (I-ME).
The full text of the letter can be found below.
Dear Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, and Leader McCarthy:
We write to express our support for dedicated funding for broadband for health care providers in any future coronavirus relief package Congress considers. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the need to expand telehealth so that health care providers can treat patients safely, without putting themselves or their patients at risk. As a result, many health care providers are facing connectivity challenges in meeting this new demand for telehealth. It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus.
The Rural Health Care (RHC) Program is the only federal program that supports broadband deployment at urban and rural health care provider locations to improve patient care and reduce health care costs. The program is comprised of two parts, the Telecommunications Program, which subsidizes the difference between urban and rural rates for telecommunications services, and the Health Care Connect Fund, which provides health care providers a 65% discount on their telecommunications and broadband costs.
Unfortunately, demand for the RHC Program has outpaced available funding over the last several years, and the COVID-19 pandemic impact will likely exacerbate this issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that health care providers use telehealth to direct patients to the right level of care for their health care needs, to conduct initial screenings of patients who may be infected with COVID-19, and to ensure that patients have access to necessary care without potentially exposing themselves by entering a hospital or physician’s office. Congress’s actions to waive restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak in the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will also likely increase demands for telehealth and requests for support through the RHC Program.
Congress must do more for our health care providers so that they can meet telehealth needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why we are writing you to request that Congress provide $2 billion in additional support for the RHC Program in any future coronavirus response. This additional support would expand the reach of the RHC Program to enable health care providers at non-rural and mobile health care facilities to engage in telehealth, eliminate administrative red tape that slows down the ability of front-line providers to obtain broadband connectivity, and provide more resources to current health care providers in the RHC Program so they can increase their broadband capacity to effectively treat their patients.
The RHC Program has been a key aspect of increasing telehealth in the United States. In this time of crisis, it is imperative we do our part to ensure the safety and security of our health care providers and patients. We urge you to include support in coronavirus legislation to ensure that Americans can access vital care when they need it in a way that protects their health and the health of those around them. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.