As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) prepares for its first vote on May 18 to roll back net neutrality rules, which ensure all internet traffic gets equal treatment, it must evaluate the impact this decision will have on the country’s most vulnerable citizens.
For low-income Americans and people of color, who have been historically underserved by the healthcare system, ending net neutrality could dramatically reduce access to life-saving health services.
In 2015, the FCC reclassified broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act, requiring internet service providers, like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, to treat all web traffic equally.
This reclassification and the approach to health services in the 2015 Open Internet Order provided a path for healthcare providers to deliver services in innovative ways to hard-to-reach communities.
Telehealth services is an innovative way to provide medical diagnosis, care, and treatment remotely. The bipartisan Telehealth Innovation and Improvement Act of 2017 would require Medicare to extend its coverage of telemedicine by expanding the services, types of providers, and geographic regions covered. This would allow Medicare beneficiaries living in and outside of rural areas to receive different types of telemedicine care from the available providers in their communities, even if they are not physicians. Since net neutrality was passed, states have also made significant headway in making telemedicine services available to their residents.
If net neutrality is revoked, internet gatekeepers will control both the speed and access to websites and services, including the delivery of vital health information. That’s because revoking the 2015 Open Internet Order would undermine the internet as an accessible and open platform for both patient and provider, a detail advocates for repeal often leave out. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently revealed his plan to roll back net neutrality regulations by removing Title II, otherwise known as legal framework that makes the rules enforceable.
Revoking the entire Order could be detrimental to telemedicine since the Commission provided a balanced approach to ensure that vital health information could be considered a specialized service, and potentially not subject to the conduct-based rules. By tipping the scales in favor of ISPs that want a carte blanche to create all sorts of paid prioritization arrangements, it would inevitably impact, if not outright harm, individuals who rely on telemedicine for health services.
The Chairman’s plan is undoubtedly a gift to powerful corporations who have long sought the ability to further monetize internet traffic and slow down or even block websites at their choosing. This is a grim reality that could be implemented soon: FCC Commissioners will vote on beginning the process to end net neutrality at a meeting this month.
Days after Chairman Pai’s announcement, Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Congress avoids shutdown Senate dodges initial December crisis with last-minute deal Congress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight MORE introduced the bill that would revoke the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules, and block the issuance of similar consumer protections in the future. Neither of the proposed policies — both the FCC’s rollback and Senator Lee’s bill — provide an alternative vehicle that would ensure the same level of protection for internet users. These assaults on net neutrality are not seeking to repeal and replace: they simply aim to end regulation.
Weakening access to telemedicine could significantly impact management of health conditions that disproportionately affect communities of color. For example, African Americans with diabetes are two to four times more likely to suffer from complications from the disease, and people of color are two to four times more likely to die from it.
For someone suffering from complications from diabetes, mobility can be difficult — many have undergone limb amputations. Telemedicine would allow for the effective remote monitoring of blood glucose levels, the proper management of diabetes, and education that reduces the need for outpatient visits and overall medical costs.
Repealing net neutrality rules will compromise access to quality and affordable care for vulnerable communities because it will shut them out of a healthcare system moving toward innovation.
Tapping into advances in technology relies on consistent and reliable internet access, which is impossible to guarantee if a repeal takes place. If the repeal goes through, health disparities for low-income and communities of color will likely accelerate. Access to healthcare will continue to be divided among the “haves” and “have-nots.”
If members of Congress and FCC commissioners value equality in healthcare, they need to reject both the proposed net neutrality repeal in the Senate and Chairman Pai’s proposal next week. For too many citizens, it’s a matter of life and death.
Christy M. Gamble, JD, DrPH, MPH is the Director of Health Policy and Legislative Affairs at the Black Women’s Health Imperative. Carmen Scurato is the Director of Policy and Legal Affairs at the National Hispanic Media Coalition. Both Christy and Carmen are participants of the Allies Reaching for Community Health Equity Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.