By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — New federal legislation to make pandemic-based telehealth allowances permanent has researchers, broadband advocates and lawmakers talking about the importance of bridging the digital divide in rural Kansas.
The Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act championed by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), alongside Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), is aimed at ensuring “rural and underserved” health care providers can offer telehealth services after the pandemic. Services would include audio-only telehealth appointments, acknowledging many rural areas lack reliable broadband.
Changes would include allowing payment-parity for audio-only health services, waive any restrictions to allow patients to be treated from home and permanently allow rural health clinics and qualified health centers to serve as distance sites for telehealth services.
“The COVID-19 pandemic reiterated the effective and efficient access to care telehealth provides to patients, especially those in rural communities,” Moran said. “Even after the pandemic ends, our health care system should bolster telehealth services as a reliable option to serve patients and help expand health care options and availability for rural America.”
The effort may provide relief for those in need of telehealth options, but it also acknowledges the digital divide present in rural Kansas. Through audio-only options, the proposed legislation is working to circumvent gaps in broadband Internet access, something doctors, educators and researchers are working to do nationwide and in Kansas
Kansas currently ranks 28th in the country for broadband connectivity when only four years ago it ranked 40th. This improvement comes after the establishment of a broadband expansion task force, millions in funding for broadband infrastructure construction grants and pandemic relief aid.
Gov. Laura Kelly also established the Office of Broadband Development to focus on coverage and gaps in Kansas. Funds from the federal American Rescue Plan will go toward broadband improvements.
At the Institute for Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas, a team of researchers surveyed students who attend Kansas Board of Regents colleges and universities about access to the internet. They hope to address data from the Federal Communications Commission suggesting Kansas residents, especially rural areas, lack stable connections.
Now, Kansas residents can fill out the survey online and contribute to their work.
“The information we’ve received about uneven and inadequate internet access among KBOR students has been valuable, but there are still a lot of geographic areas of Kansas that we know very little about in terms of internet access and options for service provision,” said Germaine Halegoua, an associate professor at KU. “Policymakers still lack essential knowledge about internet affordability and quality in rural as well as urban areas. We’re hoping that our statewide survey fills in those gaps.”
The expanded survey will gather more information on slow connection areas and data on service availability and cost. Results will be shared with residents, internet service providers and state lawmakers to address policy or infrastructure needs.
Although the Legislature last month imposed restrictions on the number of remote learning hours, addressing these needs could prove crucial for educators and Kansas students.
There are still up to 40 hours provided of remote learning, or more in certain cases if waived by the school board. With the internet becoming increasingly important in education, advocates nationwide are pushing for increased funding to bridge the digital divide.
“When I think about personalized learning, when I think about digital learning, to me it comes down to opportunities. Are we offering the opportunities that our kids need to thrive?” said Thomas C. Murray, director of innovation for Future Ready Schools.