Published by Politico on December 12, 2018
by Renuka Rayasam
AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Republicans don’t usually look to Lyndon Johnson for inspiration.
But the need for improved broadband services in rural areas — to spread telemedicine, viewed as the next frontier of medicine — has caused some to look to the former president’s efforts to connect those same areas to the electrical grid.
“I’m a conservative Republican and believe private enterprise should do that,” said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. “But we kinda got a unique problem in rural Texas.
“I can compare it to when electricity first became available and we had [Johnson’s] Rural Electrification Program,” said Miller, an avid supporter of President Donald Trump whose reelection was endorsed by far-right groups. “There’s not enough profit. As a matter of fact, there’s probably not any profit to bring that out to remote areas for the private sector.”
Rural areas have long suffered from the lack of broadband connectivity. But the demand for telemedicine, which can virtually bring doctors and nurses to poor, rural areas with few clinicians, is renewing state and federal efforts to improve internet infrastructure.
Last year, Texas lawmakers passed bills that made telemedicine legal and improved the reimbursement process to help rural counties contend with provider shortages and hospital closures. When they next meet in 2019, the legislature will take up bills to help rural areas get connected to high-speed Internet services, said Blake Hutson, associate state director for advocacy at AARP Texas.
“We definitely see broadband as big barrier,” said Hutson. “A lot of cutting edge concepts in telemedicine are not available to people in rural areas.”
Texas lawmakers are filing bills that broaden the use of telemedicine to provide mental health counseling and deliver forensic care to sexual assault survivors. Yet as Texas and other states open the doors to telemedicine, providers can’t afford the high-speed connections they need to install the remote service.
More than a quarter of Texas’s rural population lacks fixed broadband access, according to an August report from the Texas Health Improvement Network. Nationally, more than 30 percent of rural people lack access, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
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