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7/19/2011
04:43 PM
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FCC Criticized For Not Spending On Telemedicine

American Telemedicine Association urges action on measures to achieve the National Broadband Plan's goals.

Slideshow: Wireless Telehealth Brings Medical Help To Those In Need
Slideshow: Wireless Telehealth Brings Medical Help To Those In Need
(click for larger image and for full slideshow)
The American Telemedicine Association (ATA) has fired off a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging that more money be spent on expanding telecommunications services, which will boost telemedicine projects at rural healthcare facilities.

The letter, which was sent last week to FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, noted that 16 months had passed since the FCC adopted the National Broadband Plan, which included an entire chapter on the positive effects that broadband expansion can have on healthcare delivery. The letter also stated that eight months ago the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report sharply criticizing the Commission's management of the Rural Health Care Program.

However, during this period of time the FCC has not committed enough funds or developed sound performance goals and measures that will help the FCC implement the National Broadband Plan's healthcare objectives, the ATA said.

"Despite the Commission's stated goal to provide up to $400 million annually in support of telecommunications to improve healthcare delivery, only about $80 million will be spent this year (outside of a onetime pilot program commitment)," said Jonathan Linkous, CEO at the American Telemedicine Association and the letter's author.

With more than $300 million in funds to spare, Linkous said that money should be allocated toward improving Americans' access to health services. "With the crisis America faces in healthcare, the Commission's failure to take action is disturbing," Linkous wrote.

The FCC's inability to allocate more resources to improve telecommunications services for rural health facilities also was a point of concern raised last November in a GAO report on the FCC's Rural Health Care Program, which was established in 1997. The report found that the FCC had only spent $327 million in total over the 12 years of the primary program's operation--less than any single year's $400 million funding cap.

"The FCC has for the most part ignored healthcare except in its press releases," Linkous told InformationWeek Healthcare. "The Rural Health Care Program should be spending $400 million a year. We are more than 10 years into the program and in term of what that means, it means money that is just not being spent on rural healthcare. This inaction is causing a problem right now."

The letter was written in response to the FCC's request for comment on the proposed rule regarding the Universal Service Support Mechanism For Rural Healthcare.

In the proposed rule, the FCC outlines a package of reforms that it says would expand broadband use in rural communities, which would improve the quality of Internet and telecommunications networks and enhance the transmission and delivery of health information over these systems. The proposed rule also addresses each of the major recommendations in the National Broadband Plan regarding the Commission's Rural Health Care Program.

However, the ATA declared that the FCC has a track record of broken promises and meaningless rhetoric and lacks a skilled staff, which has been further reduced because it recently lost two members.

In September, Dr. Mohit Kaushal, the former director of Connected Health at the FCC, joined the West Wireless Health Institute (WWHI) as its executive vice president of business development and chief strategy officer. WWHI also has employed the FCC's director of healthcare Kerry McDermott, who accepted a position there last week.

"Now, we also note the departure of every key professional staff from the Commission involved in healthcare policy. It is deeply troubling to see that the Commission is allotting practically no resources with no apparent plans to address the proposed rulemaking, the approved Broadband Plan, or to respond to the GAO report," Linkous wrote.

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