Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on Monday introduced a bill to make skilled nursing facilities eligible for the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program (RHCP), which provides funding for telecommunications and broadband services to rural communities.

Currently, SNFs are not included in the Communications Act as eligible providers to receive financial support from the RHCP administered by the Federal Communications Commission. Thune’s Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015 (S. 1916) seeks to remove the restriction.

Also See: CMS Gives a Push to Skilled Nursing HIE 

“For many South Dakotans, it is not as easy as jumping in the car and driving down to the local hospital for a checkup, which is why access to rural health care, including telemedicine, is such an important issue for South Dakota families,” said Thune, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has jurisdiction over the FCC. “This common-sense bill would support and improve the health care services that skilled nursing facilities can provide to our rural communities by allowing them access to much-needed funds that are currently out of reach. My legislation achieves this goal without raising the existing cap on the Universal Service Fund.”  

In 2012, the FCC issued an order transitioning the Commission’s Internet Access and Rural Health Care Pilot Programs into a new Healthcare Connect Fund designed to expand provider access to broadband, including a proposal to implement a pilot program to examine funding SNFs. However, in January 2014, the FCC deferred implementation of the pilot program, and in June of last year, Thune sent a letter to the Commission urging it to resume implementation of the pilot program.

Under the FCC’s Healthcare Connect Fund, the agency has made available up to $400 million to providers to create and expand telemedicine networks nationwide. The financial investment was meant to build on the success of the FCC’s Rural Healthcare pilot program and to expand the Commission’s healthcare broadband initiative from pilot to permanent program. According to the FCC, the Healthcare Connect Fund could cut the cost of broadband healthcare networks in half, through group purchases by consortia and other efficiencies.

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