Wicker, Schatz Introduce Bill to Expand Rural Telehealth Services

Bipartisan Legislation Would Remove Barriers to Federal Support for Rural Telehealth Leaders

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, have introduced bipartisan legislation to expand access to rural telehealth services. The bill would allow non-rural hospitals serving rural areas to qualify for support from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Healthcare Connect Fund (HCF).

The “Reaching Underserved Rural Areas to Lead on Telehealth Act (RURAL),” S. 1377, would update existing law to allow non-rural members of telehealth consortia to qualify for the 65 percent health-care provider broadband connectivity discount under the HCF as long as a majority of the locations within a group are serving patients in rural areas.

“Telehealth services are critical to increasing rural Americans’ access to quality care,” Senator Wicker said. “Mississippi is leading the nation in developing telehealth technology. Our health-care providers have demonstrated that targeted investments in telehealth can increase access to life-saving services and drive down costs.”

“Our bill will give telehealth service providers better incentives to serve more rural areas,” said Senator Schatz. “Ultimately, that is good news for anyone who cares about expanding access to health care in Hawai‘i and other rural areas across the country.”

Quality telehealth service requires technical expertise that is difficult for many small, rural providers to acquire. Larger, non-rural telehealth providers can partner with a consortium of smaller rural providers to reach more patients throughout a given state.

In 2013, Congress established the HCF as part of the Universal Service Fund (USF) to provide support for advanced telecommunications and information services for eligible health-care providers. Providers use these services to deliver telemedicine, transmit health records, and conduct other telehealth activities for improving patient care and reducing health-care costs.

In 2016, Wicker introduced similar legislation with Schatz.