FCC Will Announce Rural Health Broadband Awards Next Week

CHICAGO—The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) next week will present the first awards in a three-year, $400 million grant program to connect small and rural healthcare facilities to the Internet and each other via high-speed data lines.

“We will be granting enough awards to connect 6,000 healthcare facilities,” FCC chairman Kevin Martin says. He announced the plan here Tuesday morning at a meeting of the American Health Information Community (AHIC) federal advisory board, during the annual conference of the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA).

Under the Rural Health Care Pilot Program, launched in September 2006, the FCC will fund up to 85 percent of the cost of deploying broadband service to not-for-profit healthcare facilities. Martin says the agency received 81 grant applications from state and regional entities during a solicitation that closed in May. The awardees will include sites in 42 states and three U.S. territories, according to Martin.

“It’s our vision to see that every healthcare facility in the nation is connected to each other with broadband. This is especially important in rural areas of the nation that may lack the breadth of medical expertise available in urban areas,” Martin told AHIC members today.

“In order to receive the benefits of electronic healthcare records, healthcare providers must have access to underlying broadband infrastructure. Without this infrastructure, efforts to implement electronic healthcare records cannot succeed,” he added.

Martin says grant applicants have proposed using the bandwidth for telemedicine, research, public health, and consumer and professional healthcare education, in addition to electronic health records. 

The plan originally had been to connect facilities to the public Internet, but FCC commissioners decided this year to coordinate with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) toward the health agency’s goal of building an interoperable national health information network.

“What they really wanted was a regional network that would connect them to hospitals,” Martin says. “What we’ve learned for a rural healthcare facility is that it doesn’t do any good to connect them if there’s nobody on the other end.”

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, who chairs AHIC, says, “This is a potentially powerful, energizing opportunity for our healthcare networks.”

The more than $400 million in funding will come from the FCC’s Universal Service Program for Rural Health Care Providers, according to Martin, paid for by the universal service fee tacked on to most people’s telephone bills each month. This money is outside the normal federal appropriations process.

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