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 FCCs 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 Martins 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. Its 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 health records.
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., 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 at Avera.
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 on Nov. 19.