The Federal Communications Commission will provide $400 million in funding to rural hospitals and care facilities to support telemedicine infrastructure.
Starting at the end of the summer in 2013, nonprofit hospitals will be able to apply for funding to build or expand their broadband networks, allowing rural clinics to connect to urban medical centers to allow remote consultation with specialists and the sharing of electronic health records. Eligible care facilities will receive a 65 percent discount on broadband services, equipment, and connection to research and education networks. They can also get a 65 percent discount on constructing new facilities if they can show it's the most cost effective way to get connected.
The funding will come through the FCC's new Healthcare Connect Fund, the new permanent program implementation of the FCC's Rural Healthcare pilot program, which began in 2006. It has more than 50 active pilots in rural hospitals across the country.
"The new Healthcare Connect Fund program builds on the success of the FCC’s Rural Healthcare pilot program and will expand the Commission's health care broadband initiative from pilot to permanent program," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "For years, the FCC's primary healthcare program 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 consortia to effectively bargain for the lowest cost service."
The FCC said in a statement that the following groups are eligible for the funding: 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, and post-secondary educational institutions, teaching hospitals, or medical schools. Starting in 2014, the FCC will also launch a Skilled Nursing Facilities Pilot Program, devoting up to $50 million of the funds to test how to effectively bring broadband to nursing facilities.
Such a show of support from the FCC bodes well for the passage of the Telehealth Promotion Act introduced to the House at the end of the last Congress. That bill, which is currently awaiting re-introduction, would help fund telehealth for individuals by making it easier to get reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid.