Accessing health care in rural areas presents a challenge for everyone but hugely impacts people of lower socioeconomic status. People in rural communities have longer commutes to their nearest hospital.

Barriers such as not having a vehicle or access to a reliable form of transportation, weather, and road conditions can prevent access to healthcare services. To remedy this, telehealth services can be utilized by clinics and providers. To use these services typically, the client needs to have a strong internet connection for a video conference with the medical professional. According to BroadbandSearch data, 35.9% of West Virginia residents do not have internet service. Too often, maps that show internet connectivity are based on provider advertised speed availability in their “service area” and do not consider the actual availability at a given address that has no actual service or much less than advertised due to terrain and other factors.  

During the COVID-19 public health emergency, Medicaid has expanded flexibility and reimbursements for the use of “telehealth.” Telehealth is done primarily online with internet access on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. For example, any health care provider eligible to bill Medicaid can bill for a zoom visit regardless of where the patient or provider is located. These policy changes have been especially helpful for rural areas where specialists can be a day’s drive away, if not farther. (See for more information about Medicaid telehealth during the COVID-19 public health emergency.)  Much of the new flexibility is expected to be continued by state Medicaid programs after the public health emergency ends. 

Luckily WV delegates are working on improving broadband access. And $65 billion in new federal funding is on the table in Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in the Senate and pending in the House. While the politics are complicated around this pending Act, the West Virginia delegation has been generally supportive.

To learn details about internet improvement activities that are ongoing in West Virginia, check out the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council.

Every advocate for quality, affordable, accessible health care should be an advocate for improving internet services to all families in West Virginia who do not have decent internet access.  Quality internet services are essential to make health care services easily accessible to our rural population. During the pandemic, people are going to the doctor less, out of worry about contracting the virus. Patients who do not need to be seen in person should be able to utilize telehealth services, so they are not missing vital health appointments. 

During the pandemic, I have utilized telehealth services. I had to be careful with every interaction I had during the pandemic because one of my household members has a compromised immune system. Due to that, I did not feel comfortable going into the doctor’s office. Fortunately, I had the option to receive telehealth services that vitally improved my health. I was able to do this because the county I live in has access to reliable, fast internet. 

Broadband is a health issue. To learn more and be a part of the broadband movement, check-out the work of our allies at the Center for Rural Strategies and the Rural Broadband Policy Group