Brendan Ramirez: Universal broadband is a health care imperative

RJ45 Stecker in einem Router
The digital divide won’t end when the pandemic ends.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 41% of adults nationwide reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder — a fourfold increase since the onset of COVID-19 a year ago.

Two million Floridians have contracted COVID-19 and millions more are also struggling under the weight of the isolation and anxiety that have accompanied the pandemic.

The internet is increasingly becoming our link to the world around us — even more so during COVID-19 when everything from school and work to church services and family get-togethers moved online. Broadband has also become the bridge for millions suffering the mental health impacts of isolation who are now seeking and receiving help.

Virtual telehealth visits accounted for fewer than 1% of all visits for mental health and substance abuse disorders before the pandemic; but by October, more than 40% of all such visits had moved online. At Pan American Behavioral Health Services Of Florida, telemedicine is now a health care cornerstone and will continue to be so for years to come. That means a broadband connection is a “must-have” to build a more equitable, more effective health care system here in Florida and across the country.

But almost a quarter of U.S. families, including two out of every five Hispanic households, are still unconnected. Roughly 4% don’t have broadband wires in their neighborhoods, and a much larger percentage aren’t signed up even where it’s available at sharply discounted rates.

Broadband providers’ low-cost programs, offering low-income families high-speed service for as low as $10 a month, have connected millions. Building on that, public-private partnerships between broadband providers and school districts in places like Atlanta and Chicago have been remarkably effective in getting unconnected students online.

But we need more help from Washington. Congress passed a temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) in December to give $50 a month to low-income families for broadband — the first-ever comprehensive federal program for low-income broadband. The recently passed American Rescue Plan (ARP) commits billions more to help.

But we can only succeed if we learn from past mistakes. The 2009 stimulus bill, for example, committed $7 billion to rural broadband programs — but much was then wasted building duplicative infrastructure in neighborhoods that already had it, or on projects that never got off the ground. Similarly, the FCC has struggled to update its low-income support programs for telephone service to include broadband as well.

This time, we can help get rural America wired if we focus federal funds on the areas truly unserved, and if we encourage the best solutions to compete to deliver best solutions. Congress has to resist special interest lobbying to pick favorites or give windfalls to some companies at the expense of others. Open and fair competition always serves taxpayers best.

Once lines are built, we also have to ensure that more Americans sign up. Private sector programs have helped, but Congress now needs to make permanent the EBB. The digital divide won’t end when the pandemic ends.

In the meantime, ARP funds can help school districts, local leaders, health care providers, and community groups band together for a full-scale campaign to help unconnected Americans get online. Offering free service alone won’t get the job done for the surprisingly large percentage of holdouts who just don’t think the internet offers them anything of value. ARP funds should be used to expand digital literacy programs and recruit local mentors to help enlighten the unconnected to the gold-mine of help and opportunity that awaits them online.

As CEO of Pan American Behavioral Health, I see firsthand telemedicine creating new, cost-effective ways to help manage chronic diseases and mental health disorders while getting the most vulnerable and marginalized Americans connected to where we need to start as we Build Back Better.

We all pray the continued rollout of vaccines and gradual return to “normal” begins to ease the surge in isolation, anxiety and depression. But the basic human need for connectivity will endure, and every American deserves equal access to the fundamental tools this connectivity now requires.

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Brendan Ramirez is a mental health advocate and the CEO of Pan American Behavioral Health Services, a community mental health center in Orlando.

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