WHITEFIELD, N.H. (AP) – Health care advocates in northern New England are frustrated that the federal government hasn’t followed through on a plan to improve communication between doctors and other providers in rural areas.

It’s been nearly three years since the Federal Communications Commission said it would spend $417 million to create a national communication system to link health care providers through video-conferencing and other technology. Martha McLeod of the North Country Health Consortium in Whitefield said the program would not only reduce costs but improve the lives of those living in rural areas. A patient could talk to a psychiatrist in another part of the state using video-conferencing. A doctor who encounters a highly unusual problem could consult with a specialist hundreds of miles away.

“It could improve access to health care services that are not available in the North Country at this time,” she said. Providers in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire created the New England Telehealth Consortium to take advantage of the program, hoping to begin building the network in late 2008.

Now it looks like northern New England won’t get a program until 2010 at the earliest. “The bureaucracy of the process has proven to be quite daunting,” said Brian Thibeau, who directs the consortium based in Bangor, Maine.

The region is far from alone. Thibeau said not one of the 69 groups nationwide that have applied has implemented an operating system. Only two have been guaranteed money.

Dr. Dale Alverson of the University of New Mexico medical school is leading the effort to set up a telehealth network in the Southwest. He and several other program leaders went to Washington a few weeks ago to meet with acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps. Alverson said Copps seemed surprised that so little had been accomplished.

“It seemed to us that they really didn’t understand the problems we were all facing,” he said.

Robert Kenny, an FCC spokesman, said the commission is concerned about the delay. “The commission is looking at those issues really closely,” he said.



Information from: WEVO-FM, http://www.nhpr.org/

AP-ES-03-15-09 1122EDT


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