WASHINGTON, D.C. (WDVM) –In a bipartisan effort, several U.S. senators are working to make healthcare more accessible in rural America.
Democratic senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, and Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, introduced the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act of 2019 (ECHO 2019 Act) in late May, which would connect health care providers in rural communities with specialists in other areas to foster continuing education through telecommunication technology.
“This is a bill that’s trying to push really innovative telehealth practices on the health side but it only works if there’s good telecom connectivity and broadband deployment,” Kaine said on Thursday.
The bill will primarily focus on connecting providers via video conferencing to allow rural providers to access continuing education in a rapidly changing field.
“As medicine and technology evolve, we must ensure that our healthcare professionals, even in the most rural areas, have access to the continued education that will allow them to provide the best care possible,” said Murkowski in a statement.
While the ECHO 2019 act would provide grants and technical assistance to communities, it would not include funding to improve high-speed internet connections in rural areas. Broadband is both a critical component of successfully expanding telehealth programs and a major issue within rural communities, such as the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
On Thursday morning, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam met with the Commonwealth’s Congressional Delegation, including Kaine, to discuss a number of major issues in the Commonwealth, including the digital divide. Kaine says providing quality high-speed internet connectivity is a major goal for the governor, and that Congressional leaders will work to bridge the gap.
“The support for more rural broadband deployment will not be through this particular healthcare act, but we have separate infrastructure, telecom bills, there are grant programs both through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and also F.C.C. funding,” Kaine said. “What we need to do is use the federal funds and match them more closely with the state and private funds to try to achieve the goal that the Northam administration has set, is that we’ll have universal broadband access in Virginia within 10 years.”
The ECHO 2019 Act is based off a similar act Schatz introduced in 2016.