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FCC, HHS, USDA Collaborate On Rural Telehealth Initiative

Two doctors discussing information on a tablet.

Shot of two young doctors using a digital tablet late at night in a modern hospital

On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that they signed a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on the Rural Telehealth Initiative. The initiative is a multi-agency effort to “collaborate and share information to address health disparities, resolve service provider challenges, and promote broadband services and technology to rural areas in America.”

The move is an implementation of President Trump’s recent executive order designed to “improve rural health and telehealth access.” The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of telehealth, especially as it pertains to providing healthcare to Americans in rural areas.

The agencies noted that Americans living in rural areas “are acutely affected by gaps in the healthcare system,” such as hospital closures or lack of a specialist. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that rural Americans, who constitute 15 percent of the American population, face many health discrepancies compared to urban Americans. Those living in rural areas “are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and strokes.” The agencies said telehealth medicine is crucial to treat these patients, to improve health outcomes, reduce costs, and help health care providers in their communities.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “telemedicine is a game-changer for rural America,” and cited that the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the problem. “More than ever, these areas of the country need enhanced connectivity to provide vital health services to residents. With the adoption of the $200 million COVID-19 Telehealth Program, the FCC acted quickly to approve 539 funding applications for a wide array of health care providers, including community health centers, mental health clinics, and non-profit hospital systems in both rural and urban areas of the country.”

As part of this initiative, the agencies will establish an inter-agency Rural Telehealth Initiative Task Force with representation from each agency to meet regularly to come up with future recommendations and guidelines based on the expertise of each agency as well as other scientific and technical information and data.

“USDA is tasked with the noble goal of increasing prosperity in rural America. Increasing access to quality tele-health services is a critical part of this goal, especially now that the coronavirus has presented new challenges to rural healthcare,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said. “USDA has been working to expand broadband availability in rural areas so our citizens can utilize services like telehealth. USDA’s Rural Broadband ReConnect program is delivering nearly $650 million in loans, grants, and loan-grant combinations to deploy high-speed broadband internet to rural communities who do not have access. Everyone needs access to this critical infrastructure and we need to do more to ensure rural communities are connected.”

The initiative comes after the FCC created a Telehealth Relief Program in March to help health care providers during the pandemic and the FCC increasing funding to support and expand its Rural Healthcare Program.

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