The American Hospital Association is urging the Federal Communications Commission to designate funds to boost the use of high-speed broadband for a variety of healthcare IT services, particularly telehealth in rural areas.

The trade association, representing the country’s hospitals, said broadband investment is crucial for healthcare access in rural areas because the adoption of telehealth is on the rise, and that’s crucial for financially strapped rural healthcare organizations.

In January, the FCC issued a proposed rule on ways to strengthen the Rural Health Care Program, including a proposal to provide more support for rural telemedicine services to improve access to healthcare services.

While about a quarter of the nation’s population live in rural communities, only 10 percent of physicians practice in rural areas, the AHA noted, but it added that the Rural Health Care program’s full potential is limited by a spending cap that’s not sufficient to meet the costs of delivering broadband services.

Broadband enables telehealth services to connect patients and providers in a variety of ways that include videoconferencing, remote monitoring, electronic consults and wireless communications, while electronic health records enable efficient exchange of patient and treatment information, improving the continuity of care, reducing redundant treatment and improving outcomes, AHA argues.

Also See: Trump executive order to aid rural broadband will help providers

Access to reliable, affordable and high-bandwidth broadband is essential to providing modern healthcare, AHA’s comment letter says.

“Electronic health records, technology-based patient engagement strategies, health information sharing for coordinated care, and remote monitoring technologies all require robust broadband connections,” according to the AHA.

The FCC administers the $10 billion Universal Service Fund, and a fraction of those funds are used to make telemedicine consultations more feasible in rural areas, but for the second consecutive year demand for telemedicine services is likely to exceed available funding.

The proposed rule would launch a review of the program to ensure Americans have access to advanced telehealth services no matter where they live.

In its comments to the FCC, the association contends that funds for rural health must be updated to keep pace with the growing connectivity needs of providers. “Of the four universal service programs administered by the FCC, the RHC program is by far the smallest,” AHA tells policymakers. “In the most recent Universal Service Monitoring Report, RHC program disbursements accounted for less than five percent of total spending.”

Consequently, the $400 million spending cap established 20 years ago is outstripped by current demand, and the nation’s hospitals want a retroactive increase of the cap based on inflation. If the FCC had adjusted the $400 million cap for inflation each year since 1997, it would be equal to $571 million in Fiscal Year 2017.

The association also asks for additional support for tribal healthcare providers; continuation of the practice of equally prorating reductions for all applicants where qualifying funding requests exceed the cap; revising the definition of “rural” to be more inclusive; and streamlining the RHC program to reduce high administrative burdens.

The full 19-page comment letter to the FCC is available here.

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