Lack of access to broadband hampering telehealth for veterans

Broadband connectivity is critical to meet the healthcare needs of veterans, particularly in rural areas. However, 2.2 million veteran households lack either fixed or mobile broadband connections at home.

That’s among the findings of a report by the Federal Communications Commission on promoting broadband Internet access service for veterans.

Rural veterans “continuously struggle with access to medical care, demonstrating the importance telehealth could have on rural veterans,” the FCC report says. However, it points out that “veterans residing in rural areas are likely to have more limited access to fixed and mobile broadband services in the home, limiting their access to services such as telemedicine.”

Nonetheless, the Department of Veterans Affairs operates the nation’s largest telemedicine program. Last year, the VA conducted more than 1 million video telehealth visits—a 19 percent increase over the prior year—and the agency’s overall goal is to increase veterans receiving some care through telehealth from 13 percent to 20 percent.

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Also See: VA reports 19% increase in video telehealth visits

However, the FCC contends that the lack of broadband access in rural areas is one of the major barriers to more veterans being able to leverage the VA telemedicine program. The report notes that almost 3 million veterans living in rural areas are enrolled in the VA’s healthcare system, of which 27 percent do not have Internet access at home.

“Rural veterans are substantially more likely to enroll in the VA’s healthcare system than urban veterans, and rural veterans are on average older than the general population, more often face health problems, and live further from physical medical facilities,” according to the report.

Further, the FCC reveals that veterans with the lowest incomes are most likely to go without broadband at home, indicating that price is a significant barrier to adoption.

The agency says it is working to break down the price barriers to high-speed Internet for low-income consumers through the FCC’s Universal Service Fund Lifeline program. Currently, there are about 1.3 million veterans that benefit from the Lifeline program, according to the FCC.

In addition, the FCC is “pursuing an automated database connection with the Veterans Benefits Administration that would allow certain low-income veterans to be automatically verified for the Lifeline benefit.” The agency is also “considering creating a Connected Care Pilot Program to support the delivery of telehealth services to low-income Americans, including veterans, with delivery of health services directly to patients that live in rural areas and those that are not mobile.”

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