Schatz Leads Bipartisan Group Of Senators To Call For $2 Billion In New Federal Funding To Help Health Care Providers Expand Telehealth Services During Pandemic
WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) led a bipartisan group of senators to urge the leadership of both the Senate and House of Representatives to include $2 billion in the next coronavirus relief package to help health care providers expand telehealth services by improving their access to broadband.
“The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the need to expand telehealth,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif). “It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus.”
Telehealth allows health care providers to treat patients safely without putting themselves or their patients at risk of contracting COVID-19 and has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, many providers – especially in rural and hard-to-reach communities – lack the resources to handle this increase in demand for telehealth services.
The senators are calling for $2 billion in additional funding to the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program, the only federal program that supports broadband deployment at urban and rural health care provider locations. These new funds would expand the RHC Program to support non-rural and mobile health care providers, eliminate administrative red tape slowing down the process of obtaining broadband connectivity, and provide more resources to help providers increase their broadband capacity.
Expanding telehealth is critical to keeping people safe during the current public health emergency. The coronavirus response legislation has included multiple provisions from Schatz's bipartisan CONNECT for Health Act (S. 2741). These measures have helped increase access to Medicare telehealth services during the current public health emergency, allowing more patients to receive care at home, while freeing up health resources and limiting the spread of infections in emergency rooms and hospitals.
In addition to Senator Schatz, the letter was signed by U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Angus King (I-Maine), and John Boozman (R-Ark.).
The full letter is available here and below:
Dear Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, and Leader McCarthy:
We write to express our support for dedicated funding for broadband for health care providers in any future coronavirus relief package Congress considers. The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the need to expand telehealth so that health care providers can treat patients safely, without putting themselves or their patients at risk. As a result, many health care providers are facing connectivity challenges in meeting this new demand for telehealth. It is imperative that Congress act to ensure our front-line responders have the tools they need to combat this deadly virus.
The Rural Health Care (RHC) Program is the only federal program that supports broadband deployment at urban and rural health care provider locations to improve patient care and reduce health care costs. The program is comprised of two parts, the Telecommunications Program, which subsidizes the difference between urban and rural rates for telecommunications services, and the Health Care Connect Fund, which provides health care providers a 65% discount on their telecommunications and broadband costs.
Unfortunately, demand for the RHC Program has outpaced available funding over the last several years, and the COVID-19 pandemic impact will likely exacerbate this issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that health care providers use telehealth to direct patients to the right level of care for their health care needs, to conduct initial screenings of patients who may be infected with COVID-19, and to ensure that patients have access to necessary care without potentially exposing themselves by entering a hospital or physician’s office. Congress’s actions to waive restrictions on the use of telehealth in Medicare during the coronavirus outbreak in the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2020 and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will also likely increase demands for telehealth and requests for support through the RHC Program.
Congress must do more for our health care providers so that they can meet telehealth needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why we are writing you to request that Congress provide $2 billion in additional support for the RHC Program in any future coronavirus response. This additional support would expand the reach of the RHC Program to enable health care providers at non-rural and mobile health care facilities to engage in telehealth, eliminate administrative red tape that slows down the ability of front-line providers to obtain broadband connectivity, and provide more resources to current health care providers in the RHC Program so they can increase their broadband capacity to effectively treat their patients.
The RHC Program has been a key aspect of increasing telehealth in the United States. In this time of crisis, it is imperative we do our part to ensure the safety and security of our health care providers and patients. We urge you to include support in coronavirus legislation to ensure that Americans can access vital care when they need it in a way that protects their health and the health of those around them. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.