Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) has introduced a bill to help cut the operating costs of health information technology in rural areas.
The legislation would create a group tasked with offering financial and technical assistance to rural hospitals and physicians and advice on how to increase internet access in rural areas.
Current discounts provided by the Federal Communications Commission to rural providers would increase from 65% to 85% so that they can purchase broadband services and equipment.
The bill also provides more money for medical transportation services, including full reimbursements for the cost of caregivers and other transportation service providers for round trips for low-income seniors to healthcare appointments, even if the patient is not in the vehicle on the return trip.
Rural hospitals have long been under financial strain. Many face a high mix of Medicaid, uninsured and Medicare patients.
The bill requires the FCC to streamline the application process for the rural discount program and permits the agency “to further reduce cost sharing for health care providers in tribal areas,” according to a Franken news release.
Rural providers were targeted for extra help under the federal electronic health record incentive payment program and rose to the challenge of EHR adoption.
By 2015, the fifth year of the $34.7 billion program, the once-feared digital divide between urban and rural provider had been narrowed, federal data showed.
Despite widespread adoption of EHRs, many rural hospitals still tangle with inadequate interoperability.
“Not only do you need the appropriate internet connection, you need the appropriate bandwidth to do various types of telehealth,” said Maggie Elehwany, vice president of government affairs and policy for the National Rural Health Association. “It's still a problem.”