May 12, 2020
WASHINGTON, D.C.– U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, joined a bipartisan group of senators to urge the leadership of both the Senate and House of Representatives to include $2 billion in the next coronavirus relief package to help healthcare providers expand telehealth services through improved access to broadband. Telehealth reduces the time and costs of traveling great distances, and also allows healthcare providers to treat patients safely without putting themselves or their patients at risk of contracting coronavirus and has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, many providers – especially in rural and hard-to-reach communities – lack the resources to handle this increase in demand for telehealth services.
“We write to express our support for dedicated funding for broadband for health care providers in any future coronavirus relief package Congress considers,” wrote the senators. “The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the need to expand telehealth so that health care providers can treat patients safely, without putting themselves or their patients at risk. As a result, many health care providers are facing connectivity challenges in meeting this new demand for telehealth. It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus.”
The senators are calling for $2 billion in additional funding to the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program, the only federal program that supports broadband deployment at urban and rural health care provider locations. These new funds would expand the RHC Program to support non-rural and mobile health care providers, eliminate administrative red tape slowing down the process of obtaining broadband connectivity, and provide more resources to help providers increase their broadband capacity
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. In late March, he cosponsored the Immediate Relief for Rural Facilities and Providers Act, legislation aiming at addressing the impending crisis facing our healthcare system as the spread of the coronavirus epidemic increasingly strains hospitals and providers across the country. 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.
In addition to Senator King, the letter was signed by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and John Boozman (R-Ark.).
The full letter is available here and below.
Dear Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, and Leader McCarthy:
We write to express our support for dedicated funding for broadband for health care providers in any future coronavirus relief package Congress considers. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the need to expand telehealth so that health care providers can treat patients safely, without putting themselves or their patients at risk. As a result, many health care providers are facing connectivity challenges in meeting this new demand for telehealth. It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus.
The Rural Health Care (RHC) Program is the only federal program that supports broadband deployment at urban and rural health care provider locations to improve patient care and reduce health care costs. The program is comprised of two parts, the Telecommunications Program, which subsidizes the difference between urban and rural rates for telecommunications services, and the Health Care Connect Fund, which provides health care providers a 65% discount on their telecommunications and broadband costs.
Unfortunately, demand for the RHC Program has outpaced available funding over the last several years, and the COVID-19 pandemic impact will likely exacerbate this issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that health care providers use telehealth to direct patients to the right level of care for their health care needs, to conduct initial screenings of patients who may be infected with COVID-19, and to ensure that patients have access to necessary care without potentially exposing themselves by entering a hospital or physician’s office. Congress’s actions to waive restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak in the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will also likely increase demands for telehealth and requests for support through the RHC Program.
Congress must do more for our health care providers so that they can meet telehealth needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why we are writing you to request that Congress provide $2 billion in additional support for the RHC Program in any future coronavirus response. This additional support would expand the reach of the RHC Program to enable health care providers at non-rural and mobile health care facilities to engage in telehealth, eliminate administrative red tape that slows down the ability of front-line providers to obtain broadband connectivity, and provide more resources to current health care providers in the RHC Program so they can increase their broadband capacity to effectively treat their patients.
The RHC Program has been a key aspect of increasing telehealth in the United States. In this time of crisis, it is imperative we do our part to ensure the safety and security of our health care providers and patients. We urge you to include support in coronavirus legislation to ensure that Americans can access vital care when they need it in a way that protects their health and the health of those around them. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.