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Alaska Lawmakers Link Telehealth Growth to Better Broadband

Alaska's legislature is petitioning the FCC to bolster a rural healthcare fund that enables states to expand broadband services. This, in turn, would help the state expand its telehealth and remote monitoring services.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Alaska legislators are asking for federal help in expanding the state’s broadband network to support more telemedicine and telehealth services.

House Joint Resolution 14, which passed by a 33-6 vote this week, calls on the Federal Communications Commission to increase the Rural Health Care Universal Service Support Fund, which could then be used to invest in new broadband technology in the nation’s most remote state. This, in turn, would help the state’s healthcare providers launch more telehealth and remote monitoring services.

In asking for more support, legislators noted the program’s $400 million budget hasn’t been expanded since it was created in 1997, and the FCC expects demand to exceed the funding supply for the first time this year.

“The long-distance delivery of quality healthcare via telemedicine has made great strides in rural Alaska in recent years,” Rep. Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), the resolution’s sponsor, said in a news release. “However, we’re about to hit a roadblock.  Increasing the FCC support budget will allow healthcare providers in isolated communities to continue expanding local treatment options in ways we never could have dreamed of just a few years ago.”

“Telehealth allows patients in rural parts of Alaska access to state-of-the-art diagnostic tools and treatments that can help the sick and afflicted,” added Rep. Zach Fansler (D-Bethel). “This resolution puts the House on record supporting a proactive solution to a looming problem potentially jeopardizing healthcare for hundreds of thousands.”

READ MORE: Broadband: The Missing Link to Rural Telehealth Success

Alaska’s request comes on the heels of a report issued in March by NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, which estimated that a rural hospital could save more than $100,000 a year in healthcare and community costs if it had a telemedicine program – and the broadband capability to power it.

“The continuing advancement of telemedicine and the accrual of its potential benefits to patients, healthcare providers, healthcare facilities and the communities that house them will not be possible without high-quality, reliable broadband infrastructure,” Rick Schadelbauer, the report’s author and the NTCA’s manager of economic research and analysis, wrote. “Moreover, this infrastructure must include both high-capacity fiber-based networks and a complementary layer of fixed and mobile wireless networks.”

“Highly advanced, state-of-the-art telemedicine applications - including some not even yet developed - can only be possible when accessed via a high-speed, reliable broadband network,” he added. “This is particularly critical in rural America, where the highest potential benefits from telemedicine - and the greatest challenges to deploying broadband - can be found.”

A little more than a year ago, a coalition of telehealth and health IT organizations, including the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) and the Personal Connected Health Alliance (PCHA), petitioned the FCC to improve wireless and broadband access to rural healthcare providers through resources like the Rural Health Care (RHC) program and its Healthcare Connect Fund. That effort is particularly important today, amid rumors that such programs could be reduced or even eliminated by the Trump administration.

“The need amongst many rural healthcare providers for access to high quality broadband access is profound,” Thomas Leary, HIMSS’ vice president of government relations, and PCHA Vice President Robert Havasy wrote in a two-page letter of support in late 2015. “This need for wireless and wireline broadband access represents a critical component to furthering a nationwide network optimized for tomorrow’s high-quality healthcare delivery systems. Benefits of expanded broadband access include the ability to conduct secure high quality eVisits such as telemedicine and expanded remote patient monitoring within the home.”

READ MORE: Tying Telehealth to Better Rural Health Outcomes

“Despite these and other critical governmental programs, rural Americans continue to experience significant health disparities,” the coalition said in its letter to the FCC. “Rural residents have higher incidence of disease and disability, increased mortality rates, lower life expectancies and higher rates of pain and suffering than those in urban areas. Rural risk factors for health disparities include geographic isolation, lower socio-economic status, higher rates of health risk behaviors and limited job opportunities. Studies have shown that rural residents are older, poorer, have fewer physicians to care for them, and have greater transportation difficulties reaching physicians and HCPs.”

Those challenges are felt particularly hard in predominantly rural states like Alaska, the largest state in the nation, yet also the third least populated and least densely populated.

In making their pitch for federal support for broadband, Alaska’s legislators pointed out that the Rural Health Care Universal Service Support Fund budget has never been adjusted for inflation, advances in technology or increases in demand; if it were adjusted for inflation alone, they said, the fund would total $600 million.

In the meantime, rural healthcare systems in the U.S. used more than $82 million, or 20.5 percent of that fund, in 2015 for rural healthcare support, an increase of 35 percent from 2014. And that upward trend will continue.

The resolution, which next goes to the state senate, calls on the FCC to boost funding in the program to account for inflation and carry any unused funds forward, “ensuring that rural communities in the state continue to have access to affordable broadband telehealth services, critical for improving access to care.”

READ MORE: The Benefits and Challenges of Telehealth for Specialists

“Telehealth is coming into its own in many parts of rural Alaska, especially in helping those dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues,” Rep. Dean Westlake (D-Kiana), said in the news release. “Telehealth can also save money by cutting down on the need for emergency medivacs and travel from remote villages to hospitals in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau.”

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