The Federal Communication Commission's plan to bring broadband to rural health care facilities is good news for people who live in remote areas. But it also could be a sign of changes to the Universal Services Fund (USF), a longstanding system aimed at subsidizing phone services in remote locales.
Computerworld does a good job of explaining what's going on. The basic idea, which virtually anyone would find laudable, is to provide broadband, and with it advanced diagnostic, telehealth and other services, to more than 2,000 facilities that are far from cities or suburbs.
This, of course, is a big element of the broadband stimulus, and the USF can be seen as another promising source of funding. The story says that the USF, which is funded by an 11 percent tax on long-distance and international calls to about $400 million a year, will be reworked to focus on health care broadband. The FCC will then enter partnerships with public and nonprofit health care providers.
Hopefully, there will be a great deal of coordination between a revamped USF, the broadband stimulus, state and local initiatives and the National Broadband Plan. Stimulus-funded Connect Kansas is one such state initiative in which coordination seems to be the order of the day. WIBW.com reports that Gov. Mark Parkinson has established the 24-member Kansas Broadband Advisory Task Force, which will coordinate with the National Broadband Plan. Topeka's Jennifer Findley was named to the board. Among other roles, Findley is the director of education at the Kansas Hospital Association and liaison to the Kansas Healthcare Education Council and the Kansas Association of Medical Staff Services.
The impact of the FCC's plan nationwide will be significant. The New York Times quoted David. Hodges, chief information officer for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. on the advantages that such connectivity will bring. On one level, his comments are specific to the special challenges of providing health care in Alaska. On another level, however, they speak to the fact that people hundreds or thousands of miles from cities always will have some sort of special, and no doubt difficult, circumstances to overcome:
We're now able to increase the amount of time we spend with a patient. We're not limited by the lack of daylight in the winter and when planes because of weather can come in. We've taken those barriers out of the equation.
The good news is that progress is being made. This guest commentary at DesMoinesRegister.com by Iowa Health System President Bill Leaver celebrates being awarded $17.7 million through the stimulus for a telehealth project. That funding, part of $90 million provided to the state, will be supplemented by $9.9 million from Iowa Health to create the network, which will serve almost 2 million people. The network will cover 650,000 households and 134,000 businesses, Leaver says.
There is tremendous potential-and a lot of money available -- at this moment for telehealth. There will be challenges, of course. One of the main ones is funneling the funding in a manner that is not duplicative and wasteful.