Schatz, Murkowski, Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill To Expand Telehealth, Help More People Receive Health Care

U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Angus King (I-Maine), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act. The new bipartisan bill directs $2 billion to help health care providers increase their broadband capacity and expand telehealth services during the current public health crisis.

“During this pandemic, telehealth services are helping families receive the critical health care they need,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill will provide much-needed funding to help hospitals improve their connectivity so they can care for more patients.”

“The Rural Health Care Program is an integral piece of providing quality health care to Alaskans in small, remote communities—many of which are not connected to a road system. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the demand for telehealth. Unfortunately, as a result, the Rural Health Care Program has already outpaced the funding it was allocated prior to the outbreak and telehealth providers are facing significant connectivity challenges in their effort to provide care,” said Senator Murkowski. “As we navigate the challenges of COVID-19, and ease the restrictions for telehealth use, the demand for this program will only continue to increase. This legislation is imperative to enable health care providers to increase their broadband capacity and expand their ability to provide health scare to those in need.”

“Telehealth provides a critical avenue for Arkansans to access medical providers without an unnecessary trip to the doctor’s office. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the need for this connection to health services. This legislation will ensure more health care facilities are equipped with reliable, high-speed internet to better serve their patients,” said Senator Boozman.

“The Coronavirus pandemic has only further shown why it is so critical we expand broadband availability in rural areas. Now more than ever, Michiganders are relying on access to high-speed broadband to work, access health care, attend virtual classes and do business – but the digital divide makes doing all that difficult for many Michiganders,” said Senator Peters. “Expanding broadband capabilities for telehealth will not only save Michiganders time and money – but will also protect health care professionals and patients. I’m pleased to join this bipartisan bill to invest in telehealth and help close the broadband gap.”

“The coronavirus crisis has underlined the importance of expanding telehealth to communities across the country - especially those outside of our more densely populated areas,” said Senator King. “Telehealth provides a comfortable and convenient way for patients to visit the doctor without leaving home – and for those who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, it can be lifesaving. At this moment when communities are facing an unprecedented demand for telehealth, our bipartisan bill will help more Americans take care of their health while keeping their distance.”

“The FCC’s Rural Health Care Program bolsters support for our health care providers’ connectivity needs,” said Senator Cramer. “By increasing this program’s funding, while streamlining the allocation process and allowing more flexibility for its implementation, our bipartisan Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act would increase access to telehealth for patients.”

“A dramatic expansion of telehealth is the best way to keep both medical patients and providers safe during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Senator Markey. I am proud to co-sponsor this essential legislation, which will boost broadband access and ensure that all Americans can connect to the care they need.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the demand for telehealth services, allowing providers to treat patients safely without putting themselves or their patients at risk. However, many providers – especially in rural and hard-to-reach communities – do not have adequate resources to handle this surge in demand. This bill would ensure that these providers have the resources they need to improve connectivity and increase telehealth capacity.

The Health Care Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act will:

  • Provide $2 billion in additional support for the Rural Health Care (RHC) Program for the coronavirus response.
  • Increase the subsidy rate for RHC Health Care Connect Fund participants during the pandemic, which they can put toward additional telehealth resources.
  • Enable mobile and non-rural health care facilities to engage in telehealth during the pandemic under the RHC Program.
  • Eliminate red-tape and streamline the program’s distribution of funding so that health care providers can quickly implement telehealth applications and treat patients faster.
  • Delay the implementation of FCC rules for one year that would severely impact support for some of the program’s most rural health care providers.

Earlier this month, Schatz, Murkowski, King, and Boozman sent a letter to leadership of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives urging inclusion of $2 billion in new funding for the RHC Program in the next coronavirus response legislation.

“Senators Schatz, Murkowski, Boozman, King, Peters, Sullivan, Cramer and Markey are right to focus on ways Congress can invest now to increase connectivity-based health care solutions during this emergency,” said Jonathan Spalter, President and CEO of the United States Telecom Association. Investing in broadband powered telehealth can transform and expand access to vital health care services. Like the companion legislation introduced by Reps. Eshoo and Young in the House, this plan recognizes that all of our country’s hospital systems and health care providers – no matters their zip code – should have cutting edge broadband and digital technology to diagnose and treat patients.”

The bill, a companion to bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives, has been endorsed by the United States Telecom Association, NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, America's Communications Association, the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, the National League of Cities, and the Fiber Broadband Association.

Related Issues: Health