Telehealth Advocates Concerned About FCC Net Neutrality Plan

Chances are you’ve probably heard the term “net neutrality” used quite a bit recently, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares for a crucial vote this month on whether to overturn a 2015 decision that officially classified the Internet as a public utility and forbade Internet service providers (ISPs) from censoring content. With polls showing that the vast majority of Americans—more than three quarters, according to some—are in favor of keeping net neutrality intact, millions of people have contacted the agency to voice their support for the 2015 rule. Telehealth advocates are speaking out, too. As mHealth IntelligenceFierce Healthcare, and others have reported, a number of telehealth experts, ranging from representatives of advocacy groups to providers who utilize the technologies with their patients, have expressed their concern about what the potential overturning of the rule would mean for telehealth. “Telehealth doesn’t work if you don’t have that connectivity,” Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP) Interim Executive Director Mei Wa Kwong told Fierce Healthcare. “It’s an essential element of telehealth. If you price people out, they aren’t going to be able to use it.”

In 2015, the FCC voted to adopt net neutrality, meaning that Internet service providers are required to allot the same bandwidth to all content and are forbidden from censoring or delaying. Advocates are concerned that scrapping those rules could hurt patients and providers, particularly those in rural and underserved communities, by creating a “two-tiered” system under which they, as large users of bandwidth, would have to pay more for it—money that many small hospitals do not have. “Many of these [health systems] are already struggling. They can’t afford to pay more,” Eagle Telemedicine Chief Operating Officer Robert Annas told mHealth Intelligence. “They don’t have the resources.” Annas and other advocates believe that these higher costs would deter providers and organizations from utilizing telehealth with their patients. As Dr. Leslie Lenert, chief medical information officer at the Medical University of South Carolina, wrote in a May Health Affairs blog post, “Reliable low cost service for telehealth is potentially threatened by the loss of [net neutrality]. What happens to telehealth if Netflix traffic is preferred above medical applications?”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, for his part, has argued that doing away with net neutrality would actually help telehealth providers. ““One aspect of this proposal I think is worth highlighting here is the flexibility it would give for prioritizing services that could make meaningful differences in the delivery of health care,” Pai, a former Verizon attorney, said in a November speech, asserting that it would actually allow ISPs to prioritize telehealth. With most of the public and numerous advocacy groups opposed, stay tuned as the net neutrality vote approaches.

(In case you need a refresher on net neutrality, which is somewhat of a complex issue, click here.)

Click here to read the mHealth Intelligence article on telehealth industry support for net neutrality.

Click here to read the Fierce Healthcare article on telehealth industry support for net neutrality.

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