Rural healthcare providers received encouraging news last week when
they learned that $400 million is planned to be poured into a federal
program in health information technology that could ultimately connect more than
6,000 healthcare providers nationwide.
At an American Health Information Community meeting in Chicago last week,
Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, offered his proposed recommendations for the FCC's Rural Health Care Pilot Program, which was
approved in 2006 and originally called for about $200 million over two years.
Commission members have yet to endorse the specifics of Martin's proposal, which
would dedicate more than $400 million over three years to construct broadband telehealth
networks in 42 states and three U.S. territories that are linked to a national "backbone" provider.
The plan would connect 6,000 healthcare providersincluding hospitals, community health centers, universities, public health agencies and research facilitiesacross the country.
The FCC received 81 applications from healthcare providers in states and regions this year, and an FCC spokesman said the commission must still vote on which applications will receive funding. Northern
Illinois University submitted an application for about $22 million on behalf of Illinois Rural
Health Net, a network of 12 institutions including universities and hospitals.
"It may not help them today," said Pat Schou, executive director of the Illinois Critical
Access Network, which is a part of the Illinois Rural Health Net. "It will help them in three,
five, 10 years. It's to increase the technology infrastructure for broadband."
The pilot program will fund up to 85% of
the cost to deploy those networks, which will
provide telehealth and telemedicine services
that support clinical care, consumer and
professional health education, public health,
health administration, research and electronic
In addition to providing much-needed
broadband for healthcare providers in rural
and underserved areas, the program also encourages providers to make use of existing
funding that has gone unused, according to
an FCC written order from last year.
In the Telecommunications Act of 1996,
Congress sought to provide rural healthcare
providers an "affordable rate for the services
necessary for the provision of telemedicine" and
instruction related to those services, which led
the FCC to adopt a rural healthcare mechanism
funded by the Universal Service Fund, the order
said. "Last fall, the FCC said they would
create a pilot program to take that underused
money to use for additional things," said Tim
Fry, manager of government affairs at the
National Rural Health Association. "One of
the things they said they would set up is
health information networks."
Avera Health in Sioux Falls, S.D.,
worked with Regional Health in Rapid
City, S.D., and Horizon Health Corp., Lewisville, Texas, a
network of community health centers, to
submit an application for $3 million from
the pilot program, said Jim Veline, senior
vice president and chief information officer
In addition to allowing the hospital to
share clinical information reliably with other
providers, the funding would help Avera
build on that infrastructure if its proposal is
accepted. "This certainly acts as a catalyst to
move us forward," Veline said.
FCC Chairman Martin is expected to
make additional announcements about the
program in North Carolina later today.
This story initially appeared in this week's edition of Modern Healthcare magazine.
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