FCC puts rural health care broadband fund on the table

At its open meeting yesterday, the FCC unveiled a $400 million program that would extend broadband services to rural healthcare providers. Through the proposed fund--an element of the FCC's ambitious broadband plan--the agency hopes to extend enhanced diagnostic medical tools, which are usually only available in large medical centers in NFL cities, to patients in rural areas.

Arguing that the new fund has the potential to do for rural health care providers and patients what the E-Rate program has done for schools and students, the FCC plans to up the percentage it subsidizes for health provider service costs from 25 percent to 50 percent. In addition, the FCC said it would also front 85 percent of the construction costs to either build new or expand existing broadband networks in regions that are lack decent network infrastructure to support advanced health care IT applications such as medical imaging and electronic medical record keeping.

According to FCC estimates, about 30 percent of federally funded rural health care clinics can't afford broadband services, while only eight percent of Indian Health Service providers have broadband access to support their health care applications for patients.

"To achieve the goals of a 21st century health care system, including telemedicine and utilizing electronic medical records, to deliver better health care more broadly, and to lower the costs of our medical system, we need to ensure that hospitals and clinics have the technology tools and connectivity they need," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in a statement. "Today, we are introducing a new and transformed rural health care connectivity program that would expand investment in broadband for medically underserved communities across the country.

Providing funds for broadband-enabled medical care to rural areas is not entirely a brand new FCC initiative. Although the FCC launched the rural health care broadband program in 2007 with funding from the Universal Service Fund, the program has not gotten been utilized that much because of the restrictions of who can apply for the funds and how they can be used.

For more:
- see the FCC release here
- The Washington Post has this article

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