Iowa's rural hospitals are applauding the state Legislature's approval of a bill to allow hospitals to hook into a $182 million statewide fiber-optic network.
The state's 120 hospitals will be allowed to tap into the system for telemedicine usage as well as other medical, educational and information applications. The bill is expected to be signed into law within the next month by Gov. Terry Branstad.
"You're going to find multihospital systems taking advantage of this, and it will benefit rural areas, whether it's clinical or operationally oriented," said Arthur Spies, senior vice president of the Iowa Hospital Association.
Rural hospitals will profit, in part, by keeping patients at their facilities, backers said. Meanwhile, consumers benefit by not having increased transportation costs and more expensive care at tertiary facilities, executives added.
Telemedicine is a two-way audio and video communications network that gives hospitals, particularly those in remote rural areas, access to medical and technological resources via telephone lines or satellite link-ups.
Iowa operates one of the most comprehensive fiber-optic networks in the country, with a connecting point in each of the state's 99 counties. The 2-year-old network links the state's schools, community colleges and four-year colleges. Institutions pay fees to use the system.
The state still has to determine hospitals' usage fees for the system. But Mr. Spies said hospitals can expect costs of $100,000 to $150,000 to hook into the system, depending on their needs.
"It could get more expensive depending on the kind of clinical applications the hospital wants," Mr. Spies said.
Still up in the air are payment issues for healthcare providers that are expected to use the system. Mr. Spies said there may be some regulatory barriers and payment issues of physicians that use the telemedicine applications. "No one has figured out payment issues for the primary-care physician on one end of the line and the specialist on the other end of the line," Mr. Spies said.