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May 22, 2020

King and Colleagues Seek to Expand Telehealth, Help Rural Americans Get Healthcare

Bipartisan legislation would provide needed resources to telehealth opportunities in Maine

BRUNSWICK, ME – Today, U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, joined Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to introduce the Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act. The new bipartisan bill directs $2 billion to help health care providers increase their broadband capacity and expand telehealth services during the current public health crisis.

“The coronavirus crisis has underlined the importance of expanding telehealth to communities across the country - especially those outside of our more densely populated areas,” said Senator King. “Telehealth provides a comfortable and convenient way for patients to visit the doctor without leaving home – and for those who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, it can be lifesaving. At this moment when communities are facing an unprecedented demand for telehealth, our bipartisan bill will help more Americans take care of their health while keeping their distance.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the demand for telehealth services, allowing providers to treat patients safely without putting themselves or their patients at risk. However, many providers – especially in rural and hard-to-reach communities – do not have adequate resources to handle this surge in demand. This bill would ensure that these providers have the resources they need to improve connectivity and increase telehealth capacity.

The Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act will:

  • Provide $2 billion in additional support for the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program for the coronavirus response.
  • Increase the subsidy rate for RHC Health Care Connect Fund participants during the pandemic, which they can put toward additional telehealth resources.
  • Enable mobile and non-rural health care facilities to engage in telehealth during the pandemic under the RHC Program.
  • Eliminate red-tape and streamline the program’s distribution of funding so that health care providers can quickly implement telehealth applications and treat patients faster.
  • Delay the implementation of FCC rules for one year that would severely impact support for some of the program’s most rural health care providers.

Earlier this month, King, Murkowski, Schatz, and Boozman sent a letter to leadership of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives urging inclusion of $2 billion in new funding for the RHC Program in the next coronavirus response legislation.

During his time in the Senate, Senator King has been a strong advocate for telehealth as a way to expand access to affordable healthcare in rural Maine – and has raised the issue consistently during the coronavirus pandemic. In April, Senator King participated in a telephone press conference to kick off “Rural Health Care Week” and highlighted the need for improved healthcare options for rural Maine. He also joined 35 senators in a letter urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to increase reimbursements for telephone-based, or audio-only, telehealth services to equal other audio-visual telehealth and in-person visitation reimbursements. In March, he urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase subsidies to healthcare providers through the Rural Health Care Program – additional funding which would ensure that providers have the resources they need to deliver and expand telehealth services for rural communities. Senator King is also a cosponsor of the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act, a bipartisan bill that would expand telehealth services through Medicare, improve health outcomes, and make it easier for patients to connect with their doctors, and help cut costs for patients and providers. Several provisions from the CONNECT for Health Act were included in previous coronavirus relief legislation.

At the beginning of March, Senator King sent a letter to the CEOs of eight major internet service providers (ISPs), calling on the companies to take steps to accommodate the unprecedented reliance on telepresence services, including telework, online education, telehealth, and remote support services; in response to Senator King’s letter, several major ISPs took action to better support these remote technologies.

The bill, a companion to bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, has been endorsed by the United States Telecom Association, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, America's Communications Association, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, the National League of Cities, and the Fiber Broadband Association. 

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