To ramp up the use of telemedicine during the COVID-19 crisis, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers has proposed a big influx of cash to a program that subsidizes broadband deployments at healthcare facilities.
The Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act, introduced by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California and Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska, would provide an extra $2 billion for the effort. The bill's supporters want to see the legislation included in Congress' next large COVID-19 relief package.
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To get the money out the door quickly, the bill proposes expanding the Federal Communications Commission's existing Rural Health Care Program, which subsidizes 65 percent of the cost of broadband for eligible public and nonprofit rural healthcare facilities. Currently, the FCC has allocated $605 million for the program in 2020.
In addition to providing more money for the program, the bill would open it up to urban and suburban healthcare facilities, including mobile and temporary sites set up for COVID-19 response. It would also get rid of some of the red tape around the program. Last month, Esho sent a letter to the FCC, asking it to loosen the restrictions around the program as it has in past emergencies.
In a letter of support for the legislation, a group of about four dozen healthcare organizations wrote, "We expect that healthcare providers' demand for broadband connectivity will skyrocket in the near future as they race to handle the surge of patients who need immediate medical attention."
Last month, the Trump administration took steps to make telemedicine much more accessible to patients across the US, by allowing healthcare providers to bill Medicare and Medicaid for a much wider range of telehealth services. Meanwhile, technology trade associations have been compiling a database of telemedicine resources for patients and clinicians.