“Providers are expected to pay for equipment and training and adjust to altered workflows,” noted FCC officials 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 connected 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.”
To address the disparity, FCC officials said that 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. Eligibility for the funds would be opened up to providers in communities with inadequate broadband services regardless of whether it is a rural community. 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.
Joel White, executive director of Health IT Now, a coalition of organizations that support the expansion of healthcare IT technology, said that while FCC officials can move forward on some of the recommendations, much of the plan's success will depend on legislators' willingness to support the effort through budgetary measures, and that could take some time. He said he was largely impressed with the plan, however.
“I think overall the FCC is very thoughtfully trying to provide the tools necessary to improve healthcare,” White said. “As the rest of the economy moves into the digital age, we've got things holding us back in healthcare, so I think this could be a huge step forward.”
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