Expanding patient access to medical specialists is the goal of a new, permanent $400 million annual allocation to promote or develop high-speed communications links to rural providers.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski made the announcement Wednesday at 190-bed Oakland (Calif.) Children's Hospital & Research Center.
The FCC program, its new Healthcare Connect Fund, will encourage the use of broadband telecommunications technology “to support modern telemedicine, which will link urban centers to rural clinics or provide instant access to health records,” according to a news release.
The new program “builds on the success on the FCC's Rural Healthcare pilot program,” begun in 2006. There are now 50 active pilot programs nationwide, according to the FCC, including the California Telehealth Network, which includes Oakland Children's Hospital as a participant.
“The Healthcare Connect Fund is expected to bring thousands of new providers across the country into the program and allow thousands more to upgrade their connections,” according to the FCC statement. Lessons learned from those pilots “could cut the cost of robust broadband healthcare networks in half through group purchases by consortia and other efficiencies.”
Key aims are to afford patients at rural hospitals and clinics access to specialists at major healthcare centers via telemedicine as well as provide support for the exchange of electronic health records through funding for broadband connectivity and networks.
The fund will “provide a 65% discount on broadband services, equipment, connections to research and education networks,” and healthcare provider-constructed and owned facilities, if they are shown to be the most cost-effective connectivity option.
The federal agency will begin accepting applications for the project this summer.
Also, the FCC announced it will launch in 2014 a new three-year $50 million-a-year skilled-nursing-facilities pilot program to learn how to best support broadband connectivity to those facilities.
In America's hinterlands, broadband service remains “very sporadic,” said Brock Slabach, senior vice president of member services for the National Rural Health Association. “You'll have some rural communities that are well connected, and then some others where you only have DSL.”
Slabach credits the FCC with doing its homework on “a very thorough and a very well done set of rulemaking.”
Under the new program, rural healthcare consortia can develop their own broadband networks— with significant federal subsidies, paying up to 65% of the up-front build-out, hardware and software costs— if they can demonstrate their home-grown networks are competitive with private-sector broadband service providers, he said.
For existing consortia, he said, “planning should begin as soon as possible.” Bids for eligible services can be submitted as early as April 1 and funding can be provided as early as July 1, he said. For new consortia, network formation and planning “should begin as quickly as possible,” Slabach said, but competitive bidding won't begin until July 1 and payments won't be made until Jan 1, 2014.
“We'll see what some of the unintended consequences are rolling this out, but for now, FCC did a lot of outreach,” he said. “We had a lot of time for comment and recommendation to FCC on how to structure the program. It took them a while. It seemed like it was never coming, but maybe the wait was worth it. I think this should really provide the opportunity for all of rural America to take advantage wit what has been going on with these pilot programs.”