Consumers feel pinch as hospitals add telemedicine services

Reimbursements from the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund have soared as hospitals add telemedicine services--and those costs are being passed on to consumers.

A companion to the federal Universal Service Fund, the state's program provides reimbursements to telecom companies providing discounted or free Internet or phone service to schools, libraries, hospitals and low-income customers, reports The Oklahoman. The money comes from fees tacked on to customers' phone bills, which have risen in response.

The fund paid out $32.5 million overall in the latest fiscal year ending in June, compared with $15.5 million in the 2009 fiscal year. And while telemedicine represents one of the largest areas for reimbursement, those grants are expected to fall to $24.5 million in the 2014 fiscal year, compared with $27.8 million in 2013.

At the first of three technical conferences Wednesday before the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which administers the fund, providers described the uses, including telestroke programs and a neonatal intensive care unit application.

Debi Sovereign, a consultant for the Telehealth Alliance of Oklahoma, stressed the need for sufficient bandwidth and reduced latency to optimize service.

The commission assured providers it had no plans to limit service, but wanted to address allegations that the telecoms were selling hospitals more equipment and services than they need, according to a second article in The Oklahoman.

Brandy Wreath, director of the commission's public utility division, said the commission would probably set up a case-by-case review for hospitals and clinics that need more capacity than others.

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission made up to $400 million available to healthcare providers to create and expand telemedicine networks nationwide as part of its Healthcare Connect Fund.

Research published recently at the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, meanwhile, discussed how network neutrality would be vital for health information exchange.

To learn more:
- read the first Oklahoman article
- here's the second story