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VIEWPOINT: Free Broadband Program Can Bridge Digital and Medical Divides

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With Delaware facing both a long-standing lack of primary care physicians and a more recent shortage of nurses, online video visits to medical professionals – also known as telehealth – have become an essential tool for helping our communities connect with doctors.

Senator Nicole Poore

My colleagues and I have embraced this new reality by passing landmark legislation to make it easier for patients to see doctors remotely without having to jump through unnecessary hoops. 

But even with the expanded access provided by telehealth, the reality is you still can’t visit your doctor online without a broadband connection, which makes it even more vital that we close Delaware’s digital divide. 

President Biden’s infrastructure program gives Delaware a generational opportunity to build out broadband networks in our rural areas and close broadband adoption gaps in our low-income communities. If we get this right, we can eliminate digital inequalities and reduce health access disparities at the same time.  

Using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, Governor John Carney is leading an ambitious effort to make Delaware the First State in the nation with broadband availability in every community. By investing in bringing high-speed networks to broadband deserts in rural Kent and Sussex Counties, state officials are prioritizing using these funds to reach the communities with the greatest need.

But as important as these rural buildouts are, an even greater opportunity – with a greater potential to expand telehealth access – exists in helping more households to connect with the broadband that is already available on their doorsteps.

Across Delaware, 98.5% of homes already have the fastest internet service in the nation at their doorstep. Yet, 24% of Delaware residents still aren’t online. Here and nationally, cost is a central barrier to access: Only 57% of families earning $30,000 or less subscribe to broadband, compared to 92% of those making more than $75,000.

The infrastructure bill’s Affordable Connectivity Program solves this issue by making home internet subscriptions free for low-income households. One in five Delawareans – roughly 200,000 of our neighbors– are eligible for this benefit, which ensures internet service is affordable for all, just as Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act have done for healthcare.  

Just as the ACA was followed by years of enrollment campaigns to get uninsured Americans signed up for coverage, the ACP now requires similar efforts to get unconnected Americans signed up for home internet. Delaware must invest some of this federal funding in the kind of community partnerships, outreach campaigns, and “navigator” assistance programs that we’ve seen work wonders in driving ACA participation. 

Health care providers can play an important role, too.

This will come as a surprise to those of us who spend all day sending emails and scrolling our social media feeds, but 71 percent of adults without home internet say they just don’t want it. As national surveys have revealed, in this time of widespread disengagement and disillusionment, many digitally unconnected Americans don’t think the internet will make a difference in their lives. Meanwhile others are afraid that free internet programs must have a hidden “catch,” or will invade their privacy.

Health care providers are uniquely positioned to dispel these doubts and help unconnected patients understand the value and convenience that an internet connection offers. They can explain how a connection would let patients access world-class specialists from other states, “visit” pediatricians by video without exposing their children to waiting room germs, or talk with mental health specialists without leaving home. Especially for people with mobility challenges or without cars or public transportation, the advantages are clear and compelling.

Delaware’s actions last year to ease access to telehealth was an important step forward, but now we need to make sure every Delawarean can benefit. By investing to empower and connect our fellow citizens on the unfortunate side of digital, medical, and economic divides, we can change – and even save – lives.

Sen. Nicole Poore represents the 12th Senate District, which includes most of New Castle and Bear, all of Delaware City and communities south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. She chairs the Senate Capital Improvement Committee and serves as vice-chair of the Senate Health & Social Services Committee.

 

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