Legislation permitting skilled nursing facilities to tap into the Universal Service Fund’s Rural Health Care Program (RHCP), which provides funding for telecommunications and broadband services in rural communities, was approved this week by the Senate Commerce Committee.
The Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015, sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, was introduced earlier this year to amend the Communications Act of 1934 to include SNFs among the types of providers eligible for financial support.
In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission updated the RHCP and created a $400 million Healthcare Connect Fund to help expand providers' access to high-bandwidth connections, proposing at the time the implementation of a three-year $50 million pilot program to test how to support broadband connections for SNFs.
However, last year, the FCC deferred implementing the pilot program, claiming it needed additional statutory authority to allow SNFs to be eligible for the financial assistance, according to Thune. His Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015 would provide that legal authority.
By partnering with providers on telemedicine technology and securing access to funding for broadband services that support those applications, SNFs can ensure access to medical specialists at their patients’ bedsides. In particular, Thune’s bill would benefit the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which currently operates hundreds of SNFs nationwide, mostly in rural communities. Through Internet-based telehealth connections to its national headquarters, Good Samaritan enables rural patients to remotely connect with hospitals and physicians.
“I’m glad the Commerce Committee approved this important legislation, which will help support and improve the services that skilled nursing facilities, like the ones operated throughout the country by Sioux Falls-based Good Samaritan Society, provide to rural America,” said Thune in a written statement. “We must continue to work toward bringing healthcare to rural communities that don’t have the access and availability afforded to more urban areas, which is why I’m hopeful the full Senate will be able to consider this legislation without delay.”
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