More than a year after the Federal Communications Commission created the $400 million annual Healthcare Connect Fund to create and expand telemedicine networks nationwide, the FCC is struggling to attract providers to take advantage of the broadband subsidy. Matthew Quinn, the FCC's Director of Healthcare Initiatives, told a HIMSS14 audience that the fund is "underutilized" despite the commission's efforts to simplify the application process. According to an FCC spokesman, the program disbursed $159 million in 2013.
Ironically, the Healthcare Connect Fund was an attempt to reform, expand, and modernize the underutilized Rural Health Care Program. Last summer, the FCC began accepting applications for the Healthcare Connect Fund with the expectation of bringing thousands of new providers across the country into the program, and allowing thousands more to upgrade their network connections, in order to share in the benefits of connectivity and dramatically cut costs for hospitals and the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes the deployment of communications infrastructure in rural and high-cost areas.
"It's called the Universal Service Fund because built into the 1934 Communications Act, which is our charter, is the assumption and mandate of universal service for all Americans to support public purpose benefits" including health care," said Quinn. "It subsidizes broadband among and between eligible healthcare entities in rural and urban environments," he said, linking urban medical centers to rural clinics while providing greater access to medical specialists, telemedicine, and the transmission of electronic health records, X-rays, MRIs, and CAT scans.
In late 2012, the FCC established the Healthcare Connect Fund to expand provider access to broadband, especially in rural areas, and to encourage the creation of state and regional broadband health care networks. The broadband subsidy for the deployment of high-speed, high-capacity networks is meant to offset a significant portion of the associated deployment costs.
The FCC makes $400 million available each year to fund 65 percent of the costs of deploying telehealth networks designed to serve both urban and rural locations, as long as the majority of locations are rural. However, so far, the fund has not panned out as planned.
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