The FCC has announced the creation of a new fund to upgrade health care broadband services -- that will ultimately be used to reform and modernize its universal service program for health care.

According to the FCC, this fund -- the Healthcare Connect Fund -- is intended to reform existing health-care service programs, improve broadband access and lower patient costs. It will help expand rural health-care providers' access to high-bandwidth connections necessary for telemedicine by doing a few things: encouraging collaboration between smaller health-care providers and urban medical centers, and supporting the purchases of broadband services and upgrades to higher speed services.

The FCC’s existing Rural Health Care program was established by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and was not effectively structured to expand the reach of broadband health-care networks, according to the FCC.

So in 2006, the FCC launched its Rural Health Care Pilot Program to learn how to more effectively support these networks, and it now funds approximately 50 active pilots across the nation. In a recent report, the FCC highlighted lessons learned from these pilots, including a group of health-care providers in the Midwest that saved $1.2 million in patient electronic intensive care unit services.

And a new pilot program will also be established to assess expanding broadband health-care networks to skilled nursing facilities.

Participants will have to contribute 35 percent of the costs, but will be afforded access to lower rates through group buying. A maximum of $50 million will be available over three years to pilot program applicants.

With the efficiencies that providers will gain through this fund, the overall cost of broadband healthcare networks could be cut in half, the FCC said in a press release. Past pilot programs revealed savings of $18 million in one South Carolina Medicaid program. Another pilot revealed savings of $1.2 million by providers in the Midwest that used electronic services in their intensive care units.

Photo courtesy of UC Davis Health System