Closing the Rural Access Gap

Ashley Thompson, Senior VP of Public Policy Analysis and Development at the American Hospital Association (AHA) www.aha.org recently responded to the FCC’s www.fcc.gov request for comments requested in the Federal Register. AHA’s comments centered on how to increase better access to healthcare and how the FCC can better advance the adoption and accessibility of broadband-enabled healthcare solutions in rural and underserved areas of the country.

AHA pointed out that there is an increasing recognition by healthcare providers, patients, and policy makers that broadband-enabled telehealth solutions can help bridge the rural healthcare access gap.

As AHA states, “While the trends in telehealth adoption are positive, the rural healthcare access gap continues to widen and therefore there is the need to use technologies to lower costs, connect remote populations, and  expand the reach to obtain urban-centered medical expertise.”

EHRs and remote monitoring technologies all require robust broadband connections and the move to more coordinated care will require the greater exchange of health information among providers.

The rural communities that would benefit the most from connectivity however, also have the least access to quality broadband services. The FCC in recognizing the importance of increasing access to broadband for rural providers, created the Healthcare Connect Fund (HCF) www.usac.org/rhc/healthcare-connect as a sub-program of the Rural Health Care (RHC) program www.fcc.gov/general/rural-health-care-program.

However, according to the written response to the FCC, AHA’s experience under HCF suggests that some additional modifications are still needed to ensure that the benefits of telehealth are realized in rural communities. AHA urges the FCC to increase overall funding for the program, raise the HCF discount percentage to 85 percent, and consider making remote patient monitoring an eligible expense.

For the first time since the RHC program was initiated, the RHC program exceeded its $400 million funding cap with applicants in 2016 seeking $556 million in federal funds. So AHA suggests that it looks like the $400 million cap is no longer sufficient to meet the demand.

As for emergency care and telehealth physician visits, according to the AHA Issue Brief titled Telehealth: Helping Hospitals Deliver Cost-Effective Care, “Tele-emergency specialty consults improve outcomes and reduce need for transfers, while telehealth physician visits reduce admissions from nursing homes.”

In addition, a report from the Healthcare Performance Management Institute www.hpminstitute.org concluded that 40 percent of hospital emergency department visits and 70 percent of physician visits could be handled through remote telecommunications.

Go to www.aha.org/advocacy-issues/letter/2017/170524-let-thompson-fcc-rural-health-care.pdf for the Public Notice “FCC Seeks Comment and Data on Actions to Accelerate Adoption and Accessibility of Broadband-Enabled Health Care Solutions and Advanced Technologies”, Public Notice, GN docket No. 16-46. For more information, email Chantal Worzala, at cworzala@aha.org.

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