In a unanimous vote Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission will consider changes to its $400 million annual rural healthcare program that subsidizes telecommunication services at hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
The goal is to bring affordable broadband connectivity to more than 2,000 rural hospitals and clinics around the country in order to provide them with access to state-of-the-art diagnostics tools that larger medical centers typically have, the FCC said.
Basic broadband is not available at many rural clinics and hospitals, and some 30% of federally funded rural healthcare clinics cannot afford broadband that is secure or reliable, the FCC said. That means rural hospitals and clinics are unable to perform simple telehealth tasks like remotely connecting with a doctor, transmitting an x-ray or MRI, or managing medical records, the FCC said.
One of the proposed changes is to increase the number of healthcare centers that can qualify for funding to include skilled nursing and renal dialysis facilities, administrative offices, and healthcare data centers.
The FCC-administered Universal Service Fund, which has traditionally subsidized telephone service in rural and poor areas, will pay for the program by taxing long-distance and international phone service at about 11%. Its annual budget of approximately $7 billion would not increase under the proposal, the FCC said.
"In the 21st century, high-quality healthcare depends on broadband connectivity," said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. "These are clinics at the farthest reaches of the United States, and in the center; in small town Appalachia, in the great Northwest plains, in the vast deserts of the Southwest, and in virtually every region of our country."
Investing in broadband connectivity would not only improve medical care but also help reduce healthcare costs, the FCC said in a statement. It would also help create jobs and promote private investment in broadband networks and health-related applications, the FCC said.
The FCC compared the potential of the rural healthcare connectivity program to the successful E-Rate program that expands broadband access for schools and students.
The Rural Healthcare Pilot program was launched in 2007 and is due to expire next year.