FCC wireless plan would be good for IT: experts
An ambitious 10-year plan by the Federal Communications Commission to beef up the nation’s broadband infrastructure and extend reliable, affordable wireless service into underserved communities could provide a huge boost to healthcare information technology efforts, industry experts say.
But they say that the plan’s success will largely depend on lawmakers’ willingness to provide budgetary support of the initiative and federal agencies’ ability to work in tandem to clarify regulatory issues in areas of cross jurisdiction.
“A lot of this stuff can be done through the regulatory process, but a lot of it—like the proposal to insert more reimbursement for e-care adoption and usage—also depends on Congress,” said Joel White, executive director of Health IT Now, a coalition of organizations that supports the expansion of health IT. “But I’m hoping there are things we can do in the very near future, the midterm and over the long term.”
The National Broadband Plan released March 17 includes a section dedicated to health IT infrastructure and usage. The plan offers 11 recommendations for how the government could provide incentives for healthcare providers to use electronic care technology, which FCC officials estimate would save the country $700 billion over the next 20 years.
The recommendations include reimbursement incentives that pay providers for adoption and use of e-care services—such as remote diabetes monitoring and mobile medical applications—that are shown to improve outcomes and save money. The agency also proposes setting up a dedicated healthcare broadband access fund that would help providers pay for broadband services in areas where connectivity is more expensive because of a dearth of available service providers.
“Providers are expected to pay for equipment and training and adjust to altered workflows,” FCC officials noted in the broadband plan document. “These costs often outweigh the direct benefits they can reasonably expect to gain in terms of reimbursement for services facilitated by healthcare IT.”
Mohit Kaushal, the FCC’s director of con- nected health, said the recommendations are based on recent FCC research findings. “Unfortunately, there are really no data out there around connectivity for healthcare providers, so we had to do a lot of research” to determine what services are available to hospitals and physicians, Kaushal said. “The biggest problem that it highlighted is the severity of costs. Some physician offices are going to have to pay more for broadband service than physicians in other areas.”
According to the FCC’s findings, many providers in rural and low-wage urban communities have limited access to connectivity products addressing the needs of businesses that use large amounts of bandwidth to send and receive information. As a result, those providers often pay more for broadband service.
To address the disparity, FCC officials said they will pursue revamping the Rural Health Care Program. The move would include replacing one bucket of the program—the Internet access fund—with a healthcare broadband fund. The fund’s eligibility would be opened up to providers in communities with inadequate broadband services regard- less of whether they are in rural communities. Providers could tap the funds to help offset their higher costs for services.
FCC officials also propose establishing a healthcare broadband infrastructure fund to pay for expansion of services in underserved areas.
Among the issues that federal officials will need to tackle in order to advance the plan are reclaiming unused radio frequencies from broadcasters in order to free up space for the expansion of broadband; clarifying and simplifying regulatory rules on emerging medical devices that fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC and Food and Drug Administration; and securing lawmakers’ support of a funding mechanism for the plan.
“Things like designating radio frequencies, that’s something I think the FCC can move forward on without congressional approval,” said Russell Fox, a healthcare communications lawyer with the firm Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo. “But the funding process is more contentious, because there’s not that big of a pie, and you’ll probably have to take money from somewhere else” to fund the effort.
Mike Cummins, chief information officer for the healthcare supply-chain and qualityimprovement organization VHA, said he believes the FCC’s plan could prove beneficial to healthcare providers and patients. “I do think this is a very good first step,” he said. “I think that it will be of interest to hospitals if it doesn’t cost them a lot of time and cash to get into it. I think the effort is crucial to getting doctors, patients and the healthcare system to work together.”
White: “A lot of it ... also depends on Congress.”
Fox: “The funding process is more contentious.”