stethoscopeThe rural healthcare portion of the Universal Service Fund offers some significant opportunities for rural network operators and their communities. The USF Rural Healthcare Connect program pays up to 65% of network costs for rural healthcare providers seeking to gain high-speed connectivity to support applications such as electronic health records and telemedicine.

Electronic health records have been an important focus for healthcare providers seeking to qualify for economic incentives by making “meaningful use” of IT and network resources. As a result many healthcare providers are seeking higher-bandwidth connections so that they can exchange electronic health records — including large image files such as x-rays and MRIs — with providers in other locations. In some states high-speed infrastructure also may support telemedicine – using videoconferencing and/or other electronic tools to enable a patient to be evaluated by a remotely-located doctor, eliminating the need for the patient to travel to see the doctor.

One company that is seriously pursuing the rural healthcare broadband opportunity is Rural Health Telecom, a division of TeleQuality Communications focused on providing advice and connectivity to rural healthcare providers.

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I talked this week with Jared Alfson, health IT engineer for Rural Health Telecom, about the company’s business model and about the impact of changes to the USF rural healthcare program that kicked in this year.

“We work exclusively with rural healthcare providers,” said Alfson. “We partner with local, regional or national carriers or in some cases we bury our own infrastructure.”

If a client needs to work with multiple communications service providers to reach all of the locations it needs to connect, Rural Health Telecom handles those relationships and issues a single bill to the healthcare provider, creating the vaunted one-stop shop.

“We also assist them through the USF process,” explained Alfson. “Once they’re customers we provide documentation or over-the-phone walk-throughs.”

Rural Healthcare Connect
Rural Healthcare Connect replaced a previous program known simply as the USF rural healthcare program. A key change was that the program now helps cover the costs for a healthcare provider to create its own high-speed network where connectivity is not already available from an existing service provider. In some cases the program also covers some connectivity costs for healthcare providers in metro areas that support rural healthcare providers.

As an alternative to having 65% of connectivity costs covered, Alfson said rural healthcare providers also can seek reimbursement for the difference in connectivity costs in their area versus the cost in other parts of their state. When rural healthcare providers seek USF funding for broadband connectivity they are required to go through a competitive bidding process.

Telemedicine and Insurers
Rural healthcare providers’ bandwidth requirements could increase substantially in the future, depending on insurance companies’ attitude toward telemedicine.

Medicare issues an annual list of services that it will cover in the same manner as if the patient had met face-to-face with the doctor, Alfson explained.

“Medicaid is managed on a state-by-state basis,” added Alfson. “Commercial payers vary by insurance company and sometimes by state.”

He also noted that “parity” legislation has been introduced in some states. Such legislation would require insurers to cover telemedicine on the same basis as the same services delivered in an office visit.

Rural Health Telecom is not the only organization pursuing new opportunities in providing connectivity to rural healthcare providers. A few weeks ago Telecompetitor covered MiCTA, a non-profit group that matches rural healthcare providers wanting to build their own networks with potential contractors.

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