Department Also Invests $50 Million to Improve Access to Telemedicine, Distance Learning for 7.6 Million People in Rural Areas
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a significant expansion of access to high-speed internet, health care and educational services for millions of rural Americans nationwide. Today’s announcement continues to move forward President Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda by prioritizing economic growth in rural America and investing in the backbone of our country – the middle class.
“For too long, the ‘digital divide’ has left too many people living in rural communities behind: unable to compete in the global economy and unable to access the services and resources that all Americans need,” Vilsack said. “As we build back better than we were before, the actions I am announcing today will go a long way toward ensuring that people who live or work in rural areas are able to tap into the benefits of broadband, including access to specialized health care, educational opportunities and the global marketplace. Rural people, businesses and communities must have affordable, reliable, high-speed internet so they can fully participate in modern society and the modern economy.”
Background: ReConnect Program
Secretary Vilsack spoke about USDA’s commitment to helping rural Americans get improved access to broadband and health care during a visit to the newly renovated emergency department at Hammond Henry Hospital. The project was financed in part by a USDA loan.
He announced that on November 24 USDA will begin accepting applications for up to $1.15 billion in loans and grants to expand the availability of broadband in rural areas. USDA is making the funding available through the ReConnect Program.
To be eligible for ReConnect Program funding, an applicant must serve an area without broadband service at speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps) (download) and 20 Mbps (upload), and commit to building facilities capable of providing broadband service at speeds of 100 Mbps (download and upload) to every location in its proposed service area. In making funding decisions, USDA will prioritize projects that will serve low-density rural areas with locations lacking internet access services at speeds of at least 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload). In making funding decisions, the USDA will also consider, among other things, the economic needs of the community to be served; the extent to which a provider will offer affordable service options; a project’s commitment to strong labor standards; and whether a project is serving tribal lands or is submitted by a local government, Tribal Government, non-profit or cooperative.
USDA has simplified the application process and has expanded the program significantly. For example, ReConnect will now offer 100 percent grants for certain projects on tribal lands and in socially vulnerable communities.
The Department plans to make available up to $200 million in ReConnect Program loans, up to $250 million in loan/grant combinations, up to $350 million in grants with a 25 percent matching requirement, and up to $350 million in grants with no matching requirement for projects in tribal and socially vulnerable communities.
Background: Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants
Vilsack also announced today a $50 million investment in 105 rural distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and Puerto Rico. These awards are being funded through USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) program. This program helps fund distance learning and telemedicine services in rural areas to increase access to education, training and health care resources that are otherwise limited or unavailable.
In Pennsylvania, Cen-Clear Child Services, Inc., received a grant of $157,025 to expand a telehealth project to those with substance use disorders in rural central Pennsylvania. Interactive telehealth equipment will be utilized for the provision of drug and alcohol outpatient services, including Medication Assisted Treatment to over 2,200 patients and their families. Additionally, interactive video equipment will be installed in group rooms at five drug and alcohol clinics in the Pennsylvania counties of Clearfield, Jefferson, and Clarion. This project will increase rural access to services, reduce travel and reduce drug related emergencies.
Penn Highland DuBois received a grant of $791,474 to expand its current telemedicine program and capability across rural northwestern and central Pennsylvania through its network of hospitals, outpatient clinics, pharmacies, and medical practices. The project will focus on behavioral health with an emphasis on addressing opioid and substance abuse patients. The project will enhance telemedicine opportunities for 79,000 residents in the served communities.
USDA’s distance learning and telemedicine investment includes a $387,000 grant to OSF Healthcare System to help establish a telehealth network for 107,000 rural residents in central Illinois. Additionally, UHS of Texoma, Inc. is receiving a $199,015 grant to implement a distance learning system to improve mental health services for 8,000 people in the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.
For additional information on the upcoming ReConnect Program funding opportunity, see the Oct. 22, 2021, Federal Register. Once the application window opens, applications must be submitted through USDA Rural Development’s online application system on the ReConnect webpage. All required materials for completing an application are included in the online system.
To learn more about ReConnect Program eligibility, technical assistance and recent announcements, visit www.usda.gov/reconnect.
Under the Biden-Harris Administration, Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities, create jobs and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural, Tribal and high-poverty areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov. If you’d like to subscribe to USDA Rural Development updates, visit our GovDelivery subscriber page.
USDA touches the lives of all Americans each day in so many positive ways. In the Biden-Harris Administration, USDA is transforming America’s food system with a greater focus on more resilient local and regional food production, fairer markets for all producers, ensuring access to safe, healthy and nutritious food in all communities, building new markets and streams of income for farmers and producers using climate-smart food and forestry practices, making historic investments in infrastructure and clean energy capabilities in rural America, and committing to equity across the Department by removing systemic barriers and building a workforce more representative of America. To learn more, visit www.usda.gov.