At a bustling community health center in the heart of Boston one winter evening, Dr. Alister Martin sat across from a 64-year-old man, a patient at the center whom we will call Larry out of respect for his medical privacy. We were college students volunteering with Link Health, an organization that Martin founded, and we had joined the doctor that night in hopes of helping patients at the center sign up for a new discounted Internet service through the federal government. It is known as the Affordable Connectivity Program, or ACP.
As an emergency physician, Martin has seen how reliable Internet access can make all the difference in managing chronic conditions, staying informed, and avoiding isolation. Larry, however, remained dubious about the program.
“Look, doc,” he said, his voice tinged with skepticism. “I don’t have a computer at home. I don’t think this is for me. Besides, government ain’t never done much for folks like me. What says this’ll be any different?”
Martin tried to make a compelling case for this program’s potential to connect him to telehealth services, online resources, and family members and thereby transform his life: “Larry, I hear you. But this program is designed specifically to help people like you. It’ll give you extra money to get you set up with a computer at home and cover your Internet bill.”
Larry shifted uncomfortably in his seat, still unconvinced. “I don’t know, doc. Seems too good to be true.”
Larry is among the more than 1,500 patients our team has helped screen for ACP eligibility this year in an effort to enable more people to connect with health care online.
The program gives households a discount of up to $75 per month on their Internet plan and a one-time $100 technology subsidy. Anyone who is at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level or enrolled in a federal assistance program (such as SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, or Medicare) is eligible to apply. That amounts to roughly 52 million US households. Yet only 18 million households have signed up for the program.
The households that are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide are why Link Health was started. It is a collective of doctors, medical students, college students, and community organizers working at the intersection of health, justice, and civic engagement. Our goal is to improve health by bridging that divide.
Studies estimate that 80 to 90 percent of health outcomes are determined by factors outside the hospital or doctor’s office. These social determinants of health include things such as socioeconomic status, access to adequate education, food security, and housing security. The Internet has become an integral part of health care too. People can use it to review their medical information, make doctor’s appointments, and educate themselves about their medical issues. They can also register to vote and sign up for assistance programs like SNAP, Section 8 housing, and MassHealth.
However, 15 to 24 percent of Americans still do not have broadband access. Black, Hispanic, and Native American adults are significantly less likely than white adults to have a computer or home broadband.
The Affordable Connectivity Program was included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021. However, current projections indicate it will need more funding in order to last beyond 2024. We believe that the United States must build permanent systems to ensure everyone is able to get online — or our most vulnerable communities will be left behind.
Link Health focuses on bringing Internet access to underserved communities directly. Some patients are able to drastically reduce the amount they pay for their high-speed Internet plans. We help others get their monthly bill to $0. And we get yet others, like Larry, money to buy a computer for the first time in their lives and set them up with home Internet. We partner with hospitals, community health centers, and other local organizations to sign people up for the ACP in waiting rooms, before they are seen for other medical services.
Despite Larry’s initial hesitance, Martin pressed on and persuaded him to see the value of this opportunity. “You deserve this support, Larry. Let us help you.”
Kareem King and Dominick Contreras are pre-med students who are graduating from Harvard this week with degrees in the history of science.