Skyrocketing Telehealth Visits Call for Much More Broadband Capacity June 19, 2020
By John Windhausen Jr., executive director, and Alicja Johnson, communications manager, SHLB Coalition
Healthcare providers are hurting. As positive coronavirus cases increase in many rural parts of the country, hospitals and health clinics struggle to keep pace with the heightened demand for telehealth visits.
Physicians are now seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did prior to the pandemic. The increase in popularity is for good reason. A virtual doctor visit keeps patients safe from coronavirus exposure and tends to be less expensive.
No one could have seen this telehealth boom coming; many providers don’t have the bandwidth and devices needed to keep up. Even healthcare sites that can afford the additional expense are scrambling to upgrade their broadband connections. Ordinarily the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Health Care (RHC) program would partially shoulder the financial burden of increasing bandwidth, but the $605 million funding cap is hardly fit to cover this dire situation. The SHLB Coalition estimates that the RHC program needs $2 billion in supplemental funding to ensure that urban and rural healthcare providers have sufficient broadband to serve all patients who need access to telehealth.
Congress has a chance to solve the problem this summer. The Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act, introduced in both the House and the Senate, would direct $2 billion to the RHC program so that hospitals and clinics can expand their telehealth operations during the global pandemic.
The bill goes beyond a simple funding injection. It would also streamline the processing of RHC applications, so that healthcare providers can upgrade their broadband capacity immediately – not 12 months after submitting their application. Healthcare sites desperately need this kind of intervention, which is why SHLB was among 48 organizations to endorse the Healthcare Broadband Expansion During COVID-19 Act the moment it was introduced.
The HEROES Act does contain language from the $2 billion proposal, but doesn’t actually appropriate that funding. Given that we are in the middle of a global health crisis, policymakers must ensure that our healthcare providers have every tool at their disposal. Both Republicans and Democrats are calling for greater investments in broadband infrastructure, and SHLB is speaking with Members of both parties to encourage Congress to pass this legislation before the August recess. After all, broadband is the most transformative tool available, and hospitals and clinics need every byte they can get.