Bill aimed at improving rural health-care access sent to Obama

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, June 8, 2016 - Public and private skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) should soon be able to provide more and better telemedical services after the Senate gave final congressional approval to the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., amends the federal Communications Act to permit those facilities to apply for support from the FCC-managed Universal Service Fund (USF). A USF program, the Rural Health Care Program (RHCP), provides funding for telecommunications and broadband services used to provide health care in rural communities. The Communications Act specifies which types of health care providers are eligible to receive RHCP support, and SNFs are currently not included. 

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Thune, the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, applauded the passage of his bill, which was included in a conference report on the Toxic Substances Control Act. His committee passed the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act in November, and Tuesday night the full Senate approved the conference report by voice vote. The conference report now heads to President Obama, who is expected to sign it.

“Closing the gap between the health care our rural communities are receiving and the care they deserve has been a priority of mine, and having this bill signed into law would mean that gap gets even smaller,” said Thune. “We should be doing all we can to make it easier for health care professionals to connect with rural patients and provide greater support and improved services to those who need them the most. This bill would put these professionals, like those who work for skilled nursing facilities around the country, in a much better position to do so.”

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When the Federal Communications Commission updated the RHCP and created the Healthcare Connect Fund in 2012, it proposed implementing a pilot program to examine funding SNFs. In January 2014, the FCC deferred implementation of the pilot program, claiming it needed additional statutory authority to allow SNFs to be eligible.

In a news release, Thune noted that groups such as the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, would benefit from his legislation. The society known as Good Sam, currently operates hundreds of SNFs nationwide, most of which are in rural communities. Through internet-based connections to its national headquarters, Good Sam allows rural patients to remotely connect with hospitals and physicians. The Rural Health Care Connectivity Act would help organizations like Good Sam provide better-quality care for rural areas throughout the country.

“We commend Sen. Thune and the support of other congressional leaders for the long-awaited passage of the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015,” said David J. Horazdovsky, president and CEO of Good Sam. “Enactment of this bill will offer much-needed assistance to residents of Good Samaritan and other skilled nursing care centers in a variety of locations in South Dakota and in other rural areas of the country.”

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