Sens. Seek To Give Rural Health Care Program $2B Boost

By Nadia Dreid
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Law360 (May 22, 2020, 5:03 PM EDT) -- The Federal Communications Commission's rural health care program could get its budget beefed up by some $2 billion to help providers cope with the coronavirus pandemic, if a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers get their way.

The newly introduced Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act would bulk up funding for hospitals, clinics and other health service providers that need a strong internet connection in order to provide remote care to thousands during the pandemic.

Eight senators from three different parties came together to sponsor the bill, the companion to a similar piece of legislation that was introduced in the House of Representatives in early April.

"By increasing this program's funding, while streamlining the allocation process and allowing more flexibility for its implementation, our bipartisan Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act would increase access to telehealth for patients," co-sponsor Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said in a statement.

The increase would more than triple the agency's budget for its Rural Health Care Program, which subsidizes telecommunications services for certain health care providers.

More health care providers would be eligible to receive the funds doled out by the program under the new bill, which also provides for an increase in the size of those subsidies during the pandemic, according to the lawmakers.

Telemedicine is already an important resource for millions of people across the country who lack access to transportation or live in rural areas without access to specialized Medicare, one that the Clinton-era program seeks to bolster by helping providers — particularly in rural areas — meet the cost.

But with the shuttering of schools and businesses as officials worked to stave off the spread of the virus, in-person medical visits slowed to a trickle as health care providers urged people to avoid unnecessary visits and turn to telehealth when possible.

The onslaught of patients seeking telehealth services, likely spurred in many cases by fear of the novel coronavirus, has systems overwhelmed and providers slammed.

Trade group USTelecom said Friday that the bill was a sign that the sponsoring lawmakers understood the importance of "focus[ing] on ways Congress can invest now to increase connectivity-based health care solutions during this emergency."

"This plan recognizes that all of our country's hospital systems and health care providers — no matter their ZIP code — should have cutting-edge broadband and digital technology to diagnose and treat patients," the group said in a statement.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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