Senators and healthcare IT experts raised concerns this week that many in the United States cannot benefit from the recent boom in telehealth services because of a lack of affordable high-speed internet access across the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed so much about how people live their lives, but nothing changed so fundamentally as the interaction between doctors and their patients. The number of telehealth appointments is now twenty-three times higher than it was before the pandemic. That’s also been the case on the Federal government front, with the Department of Veterans Affairs reporting a 12-fold surge in telehealth visits between February and May 2020, to 120,000 per week.
“These programs are essential, but our work is just beginning,” said Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., at an October 7 Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing that focused on telehealth capabilities.
“The digital divide is standing in our way of connecting all Americans to this vital service,” the senator said.
To support increased telehealth services, Congress appropriated $450 million to the COVID-19 Telehealth Program in the 2020 CARES Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act to increase telehealth access, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to help distribute Federal funding to support essential broadband connections that enable telehealth services.
Despite those efforts, however, broadband service remains often more expensive for historically underserved communities, and the FCC found that 14.5 million people live in parts of the U.S. where broadband speeds don’t meet the agency’s benchmark – thus making telehealth services more difficult to access. And purchasing high-speed internet service, even if it is available, can be expensive, which poses a challenge for healthcare providers in underserved communities.
Testifying at the Senate hearing, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said he wants the agency to continue to raise money through spectrum auctions, distribute funds earmarked for rural broadband to telecommunications companies, and coordinate more closely with other Federal agencies putting money toward broadband infrastructure.
Carr also voiced his support for the Funding Affordable Internet with Reliable (FAIR) Contributions Act introduced by Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Todd Young, R-Ind., which would direct the FCC to study whether the agency could collect fees from technology companies to support the agency’s Universal Service Fund (USF). That fund subsidizes telecom and broadband services in low-income and rural areas.
The USF is currently supported through fees on telecom companies, and it supports various programs including the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program, which helps rural healthcare providers purchase broadband services. According to Carr, adding contributors to the USF could help ensure the fund has enough money to support those kinds of service demands.
“Collecting fees from big tech companies could be a much fairer way of funding the Universal Service Fund,” said Carr. “Since those companies benefit to the tune of trillions of dollars from investments into broadband expansion, they should start contributing their fair share.”
Elsewhere at the hearing, senators pressed Carr on FCC action to complete broadband maps they said are needed to deploy millions of dollars of funding for telehealth services.