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Rural America to Be Connected to Health Care

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Federal Communications Commission has reformed its universal service support program for health care. It will be transitioning its Internet Access and Rural Health Care Pilot programs into the Healthcare Connect Fund.

The fund, which the FCC describes as "new and efficient," expands health care provider (HCP) access to broadband, especially in rural areas, while helping to stimulate the creation of state and regional broadband health care networks, according to the FCC.

The FCC said the fund is essential in 21st century medical care, allowing for the electronic transmission of health records, X-rays, MRIs, CAT scans and a myriad of other important information to specialists at distant hospitals. It also will allow for video conferencing and "telemedicine," which can save stroke patients lasting damage, prevent premature births and provide psychiatric treatment for patients in rural areas, the FCC said.

"Exchange of electronic health records (EHRs) avoids duplicative medical tests and errors in prescriptions, and give doctors access to all of a patient's medical history on a moment's notice," the FCC said. "Telehealth applications save HCPs money, as well."

An HCP consortium in South Carolina, which was funded by the FCC's Rural Health Care Pilot Program, saved $18 million in Medicaid costs through telepsychiatry provided in emergency rooms, according to the FCC, and another pilot project in the Midwest saved $1.2 million in patient transport costs after it initiated an electronic intensive care unit (e-ICU) program.

"This order builds on the success of the RHC Pilot Program," the FCC stated. "That program demonstrated the importance of expanding HCP access to high-capacity broadband services, which neither the existing RHC Telecommunications Program nor the Internet Access Program have successfully achieved."

The FCC added that the Pilot Program funds 50 different health care provider broadband networks, servicing 3,822 HCP sites, 66 percent of which are in rural areas.

"The networks range in size from 4 to 477 and have received a total of $364 million in funding commitments, to be spread out over several years."

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