'Bring ''telemedicine' to Berkshires as well

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The concept is elegant, indeed — to harness the marvels of internet connectivity in making diagnostic and medical treatment services available to the remotest of communities. Through transmission of medical data such as X-rays, MRIs and other complex records and carrying on an interactive conversation on screen, doctors can provide many services without the need to be physically present with the patient.

The future is here, and the Legislature is embracing it as a way to save money, provide convenience and improve patient access to the best health care providers. Words like "telehealth" and "telemedicine" have entered the political lexicon. Currently, Beacon Hill is working on regulating this new frontier, creating reimbursement mechanisms and instituting sensible safeguards like a prohibition against remotely prescribing controlled substances.

It's a no-brainer on Beacon Hill: At least to a legislator in Eastern Massachusetts where the internet is robust and reaches practically the entire populace.

Enter the Berkshire delegation to remind our myopic solons in Boston that out in the hinterland, there are still towns with exotic names like Florida and Savoy that as yet have no high-speed internet — a utility that, nowadays, is considered as essential as running water and electricity. Wouldn't it be grand if the residents of these hardscrabble hilltop fastnesses could, finally, enjoy the high-quality medical care made possible by today's technological marvels? "If we want equal access to any kind of services in this day and age, everybody needs access to broadband," as state Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, (D-Pittsfield) put it (Eagle, November 12.)

She, Representative Paul Mark, (D-Peru), Representative William "Smitty" Pignatelli, (D-Lenox) and other legislators from Western and Central Massachusetts have been laboring with some success to put the horse back before the cart. Currently, the House and Senate are working on a large-scale re-authorization of funding that will help provide "last-mile" service to towns whose progress toward broadband service has foundered due to unanticipated costs, as well as to the eight towns that have no plan for future service whatsoever (Eagle, November 14.)

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development will, if all goes well, receive and disburse funds designed to make it more financially attractive for commercial providers to invest in bringing broadband to sparsely populated towns that cannot afford to pay for the necessary infrastructure. The key is to put the network in place in hopes that customers will sign up; the more who do, the more the state's financial responsibility will be reduced.

After all but grinding to a halt, considerable progress has been made over the past year in wiring the remote communities of the Berkshires. There is reason for optimism that more progress is coming. Low-cost, high-quality, remotely-provided health care for all Bay Staters is a worthy goal indeed. To attain it, it is essential that everyone living in large and small towns alike enjoy equal communications access.


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