Net neutrality crucial for modern health care, Cantwell and DelBene argue

By:  Ryan Blethen
Source: The Seattle Times

The internet is such a ubiquitous part of daily life that it has become as indispensable to many people as electricity and plumbing.

And yet, debates over net neutrality often focus on the internet’s role in our leisure time — streaming movies, for instance, or visiting a social-media site.

Two members of Washington’s congressional delegation, along with a Democratic commissioner from the Federal Communications Commission, visited Harborview Medical Center on Friday to demonstrate why having unfettered internet access is as important to doctors as the utilities that make a hospital function.

Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Suzan DelBene, both Democrats with backgrounds in the tech industry, were there to advocate for net neutrality — a set of regulations that requires internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all websites equally rather than creating fast lanes for those that can afford to pay for them.

Cantwell predicts growth in what’s known as telemedicine, “with more and more health care delivered by distance, and also the notion that, eventually, people will want more and more access through their home system.”

She and DelBene worry that if laws don’t ensure everyone with an internet connection has the same speedy service, advances in telemedicine could suffer and people could be in danger.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill 232-190 earlier this month, mostly along party lines, to reinstate rules passed by the FCC in 2015. When President Donald Trump moved into the White House and was able to appoint the commission’s chairman and appoint the majority of FCC seats, the Obama-era rules were quickly rescinded. The legislation to reinstate them is now in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, where the passage is less likely.

Cantwell, DelBene and FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel each called for an end to the back-and-forth of having, then not having, net-neutrality regulations. Rosenworcel said federal law needs to ensure net neutrality isn’t at the whims of changing administrations.

“We’ve got to find a way to make this stable,” Rosenworcel said.

At Harborview on Friday, the three politicians observed demonstrations of how health-care providers rely on fast, unencumbered internet connections.

Swatee Surve showed how a mobile video game developed by her company Litesprite helps people manage chronic health conditions while allowing their doctors to gather data and work with them. Matt Thorne of American Well used an iPad to connect with a primary care physician from his home in Michigan. And Dr. David Tirschwell, medical director of comprehensive stroke care at UW Medicine’s Stroke Center at Harborview, explained how lives are saved when doctors in rural areas can consult in real time with experts like himself who are based elsewhere.

After showing how he can work with a doctor from Wenatchee to diagnose a stroke, Tirschwell led the group down the hall to meet a patient who is recovering from a recent stroke.

Peter Nelsen had a stroke just after 2 p.m. on Shaw Island. He was airlifted to a Bellingham hospital, where a doctor from UW Medicine’s Stroke Center was consulted. The doctor determined that Nelsen needed care not available in Bellingham, so he was airlifted to Seattle. By 8 p.m. that night, Nelsen was out of surgery and focused on recovery.

DelBene wants to make sure treatment like Nelsen’s happens seamlessly. “Broadband won’t help if people don’t have a free and open internet to access the services they need,” she said.

Net neutrality has found some stable support on the state level. The Washington state Legislature last year passed a net-neutrality bill that is enforced under the state’s Consumer Protection Act. Unlike in Washington, D.C., this state’s bill was broadly supported by Democrats and Republicans, passing the state House of Representatives 93-5 and the Senate 35-14. Several other states, including California, also passed net neutrality laws in 2018.

That bipartisanship on this issue in Olympia is something Cantwell is raising with her colleagues in Washington, D.C. She said she plans to send a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to bring the legislation up for a vote.