Government plows broadband clearing for rural SNFs
On June 22, President Barack Obama signed legislation giving nonprofit and public skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) the opportunity to obtain federal funding for telecommunications and broadband services to provide healthcare in rural areas and communities.
Passage of the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act of 2015 was a long time coming, some ten years, in fact.
No doubt, it would not have happened without the efforts of Dan Holdhusen, former CFO and vice president and now director of government relations for the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, which operates 168 facilities across the country with more than 150 SNFs in rural areas. His initiative was backed and supported by the American Health Care Association (AHCA).
“I’ve been working on this for the last 10 years,” Holdhusen said in a phone interview with Long-Term Living. “Many of our facilities are in what I call frontier, or deeply rural areas, and rely on the transmission of remote virtual connections, medical records, and other data across broadband networks.”
Holdhusen knew the communications grant program was available to other healthcare facilities like hospitals and clinics. Why shouldn’t SNFs also have a crack at those dollars? That’s what he kept asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which doles out the grants made possible by the Universal Service Administrative Company’s Rural Health Care Program (RHCP).
But the FCC kept saying although other medical facilities were eligible for financial support through the RHCP, SNFs did not qualify. The new law reverses that—and specifies SNFs are to be included in the definition of eligible healthcare providers.
Holdhusen pointed to the financial challenges and slim margins common to the industry, adding that combined with reductions in federal financial support resulting from budgetary sequestration and reimbursement cuts, the pressure for SNFs to operate even more efficiently has become even more intense.
“We all struggle,” he said. “We try to rely on data movement as much as possible. So we are looking for ways to reduce costs and become more efficient. But the FCC has not allowed SNFs to participate in the RHCP in the past.”
Turning to Congress
Finally, after striking out in their efforts to convince the FCC to include SNFs in the program, Holdhusen and other advocates turned to Congress for help.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) sponsored the legislation in 2015, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn) co-sponsored, generating bipartisan support. In the House, companion legislation was authored by Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.), who has SNFs in his district, and bipartisan backing was provided by David Loebsack (D-Iowa).
“We applaud the leadership of Sen. Thune and Rep. Lance in helping to support this position through their bills,” says Clifton Porter II, senior vice president of government relations at AHCA. “There should be no reason to exclude skilled nursing facilities from rural health care Universal Services funding.” Porter made that comment following an April hearing by the House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology in April, during which Holdhusen testified.
Holdhusen stressed to the committee the importance of making clear “that the need for broadband technology, telehealth, and other advanced technologies is no different for a skilled nursing facility than those of an acute care setting (i.e., a hospital or urgent care clinic). … Beyond the critical healthcare benefits described above, broadband access enhances the quality of life for seniors by enabling increased social interactions and limiting isolation concerns (particularly in rural areas) and providing economic benefits and access to healthcare-related services and information.”
Broadband networks, Holdhusen added, “are critical to accommodate the delivery and exchange of data, images, Web streaming and other health information that ensure the day-to-day care needs of residents and patients are met. Access to broadband connectivity at robust speeds and affordable prices is essential in the provision of the society’s wide range of services.”
In an interesting twist, the language of the Rural Health Care Connectivity Act was included in the Toxic Substances Control Act conference report. “I’m not sure how our language got included in that bill,” Holdhusen says, “but we’ll take it.”
So, thanks to Holdhusen’s efforts and those of AHCA and other supporters of the legislation, as well as lawmakers from both parties who recognized the need and the necessity of such a common sense approach, SNFs no longer will be excluded from eligibility for the RHCP grant program.
Now, Holdhusen is back at the FCC, working to make sure eligibility provided by law turns into reality. Take note, FCC: Dan Holdhusen isn’t finished with you yet.
Robert Gatty has more than 40 years of experience in journalism, politics and business communications and is the founder and president of G-Net Strategic Communications based in Sykesville, Md. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Gatty has more than 40 years of experience in journalism, politics and business communications and is the founder and president of G-Net Strategic Communications based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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