FCC gives telehealth $400M boost

Broadband networks to provide better access to healthcare

The Federal Communications Commission will make $400 million available annually to healthcare providers to expand the development of broadband telehealth networks from a pilot to a permanent program. The pilot program has supported 50 provider healthcare networks in 38 states.

The telehealth networks will link urban medical centers to rural clinics or offer instant access to electronic health records (EHRs). The agency will begin accepting applications for the grants in late summer, according to the Jan. 7 announcement by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

[See also: Proposed bill would expand telehealth services, bolster federal payouts.]

The fund will enable thousands of new providers across the country to benefit from connectivity to improve the delivery of care and dramatically cut costs for both hospitals and the FCC's Universal Service Fund, which underwrites advanced telecommunications services. Many other providers will have the means to upgrade their connections.

The Healthcare Connect Fund program builds on the agency’s Rural Healthcare pilot program. For years, the FCC's primary healthcare program has made it difficult for hospitals serving rural patients to get high bandwidth connections needed for modern telemedicine by limiting the services eligible for funding and by making it hard for groups to effectively bargain for the lowest cost service, the agency said.

The fund will enable patients at hospitals and clinics around the country to access specialists at major health centers through telemedicine and support the exchange of electronic health records, which can lead to better coordination of care and lower costs. The program will also encourage formation of state and regional healthcare consortia to save costs and expand access to healthcare.

[See also: Telehealth poised to take center stage.]

The FCC fund will offer a 65-percent discount on broadband services, equipment, connections to research and education networks, and provider-constructed and owned facilities if cost-effective. Healthcare providers will contribute 35 percent of the costs.

Healthcare organizations that will be eligible are public or not-for-profit hospitals, rural health clinics, community health centers, health centers serving migrants, community mental health centers, local health departments or agencies, post-secondary educational institutions/teaching hospitals/medical schools, or a consortia of the above. Non-rural providers may participate in the Healthcare Connect Fund as part of a consortia, but the group must remain majority rural.

Telemedicine has demonstrated that it can drive down costs, FCC officials said. For example, in South Dakota, e-ICU services have saved eight hospitals over $1.2 million in patient transfer costs over just 30 months. In upstate New York, a network of about 50 providers expect $9 million in cost savings from providing cardiology, trauma, mental health, neurology and respiratory services over their broadband connections.

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