FCC IT Healthcare Fund to Boost Broadband Connections

The FCC's new $400 million Healthcare Connect Fund is designed to boost broadband connections in rural areas in order to support telemedicine to expand patient access to specialists and drive down costs.

The Federal Communications Commission on Monday unveiled a new $400 million fund to support the deployment of broadband-enabled healthcare technologies.

FCC IT Healthcare

The Healthcare Connect Fund advances the FCC's pilot work on broadband and health services with a particular focus on leveraging high-speed connectivity to widen telemedicine networks and boost access to specialists for patients who don't live near major hospital centers.

The FCC promises that the new fund "will allow thousands of new providers across the country to share in the benefits of connectivity and dramatically cut costs for both hospitals and the Universal Service Fund," the agency's omnibus telecom subsidy program.

[Related: 10 Ways Telemedicine Is Changing Healthcare IT]

The agency will begin accepting applications for the fund in late summer.

FCC Pushes to Improve Healthcare, Searches for Director

The Healthcare Connect Fund comes as the latest step in the FCC's ongoing work in the area of healthcare technology. Just last month, around the same time that it approved the order authorizing the new fund, the FCC began the hiring search for the new position of director of healthcare initiatives.

[Related: Big Data EHR Driving Healthcare IT Innovation]

The FCC says that the new healthcare director will coordinate the FCC's varied efforts to harness technology to improve care and drive down costs, overseeing the availability of wireless medical devices and working with hospitals and other medical facilities to ensure that they have sufficient broadband connectivity.

The director will also spearhead the FCC's outreach on healthcare issues with members of the medical and telecommunication industries, as well as the relevant government agencies involved with healthcare technology. Additionally, the individual will work with in-house FCC experts to address a host of technical issues like harnessing spectrum to enable remote testing through the use of wireless devices, and oversee the development of the new Healthcare Connect Fund.

An outgrowth of the FCC's Rural Healthcare pilot program launched in 2006, the Healthcare Connect Fund aims to simplify the eligibility requirements to ensure that hospitals serving patients in rural areas can secure funding to upgrade their bandwidth to support modern telemedicine applications.

Additionally, by restructuring the terms of the program for healthcare consortia, the FCC projects that the new fund could lower the cost of robust broadband healthcare networks by as much as half. The fund will also channel as much as $50 million over a three-year period to support high-speed broadband service at skilled nursing facilities.

How Broadband Helps Healthcare

The FCC cites Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., as an example of how grant funding has broadened access to specialists. At that hospital, which has received Universal Service funding from the FCC, medical staffers "are using broadband to enable remote examination through a live IP video feed and a relatively inexpensive telemedicine cart." That way, Barton can offer patients access to outside experts in areas such as cardiology, infectious disease and neurology, areas of practice in which the hospital has no in-house specialists.

The new fund seeks to expand those types of telemedicine offerings, as well as support for the exchange of electronic health records. The FCC says that it will cover 65 percent of the cost of a new broadband deployment or upgrade for successful grant applicants, leaving the remaining 35 percent to the healthcare provider.

The Healthcare Connect Fund will also encourage the development of state and regional consortia comprised of individual healthcare providers that can improve their bargaining position by banding together with other facilities. The FCC says that consortia must be primarily rural in their makeup in order to be eligible for funding.

Other providers eligible for the program include public or not-for-profit hospitals, rural health clinics, community health centers and educational institutions such as medical schools and teaching hospitals.

Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.

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