- - Wednesday, April 15, 2020

On March 17, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced greatly broadened access to telemedicine as a means of lowering the risk of contracting coronavirus while continuing to provide quality health care. This is especially valuable to older Americans, who find themselves in the highest-risk demographic for coronavirus based on their age.

The old stereotype of seniors as device-wary technophobes has never been more inaccurate. More than half of Americans over 65 now own smartphones and their numbers are steadily increasing. With the deployment of super-fast 5G wireless, mobile devices will be able to enhance seniors’ lives in many ways, especially through telemedicine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Smartphone apps can improve outcomes and increase access to health care for everyone, and this is especially true for those who live in rural areas. Rural counties typically have a higher percentage of older residents, and often lack the access to health resources and medical facilities found in urban and suburban communities. Telehealth services can also help fill that gap.

Seniors enjoy important benefits offered by mobile devices. Almost one-third of seniors recently surveyed said they had used a smartphone to manage or receive medical care in the last three months, and over half of them said they wanted technology to play a role in their medical care. But the advantages telehealth holds for seniors are being jeopardized by the profit-motivated legal actions of a company called Neodron. Based in Ireland, the company has filed actions against several tech companies that would literally ban more than 90 percent of smartphones and millions of tablets and laptops from the United States. 

Neodron has asked the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to issue an exclusion order that would bar tech giants — including Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Dell and Samsung, all major innovators in the field of telemedicine or mobile health — from offering a huge range of mobile devices in the U.S. market, based on a claim of patent violation involving a handful of patents out of the hundreds of thousands of patents in every smart device. Neodron knows that the only remedy at the ITC is a total product ban, maximizing its opportunity to put the squeeze play on these companies. 

Incorporated just last year in Ireland, Neodron makes nothing. It provides no services. The only reason it seemingly exists is to acquire patents and then use those patents as the basis for lawsuits and complaints that seek to force real businesses to pay up to make them go away. Their effort to use the ITC to close the U.S. market to devices people rely on every day demonstrates their motivations. They just want to cash in, no matter how marginal their claims or how serious the consequences for consumers.

Neodron’s actions will hurt seniors directly by depriving them of key smart devices, and slowing the development and adoption of new telehealth products and services for a population that experiences a high rate of medical needs. This Neodron attack also promises to raise prices for consumers, an especially problematic prospect for seniors who frequently live on fixed incomes.

Companies can and should pursue legitimate claims involving intellectual property rights in the courts. The courts can assess these complex cases and come up with the right answers. If needed, they can provide nuanced remedies in the form of money damages, rather than blockading American shores against all the best mobile technology. Given the strong public interest here in having unimpeded access to mobile technologies, particularly during a time of deadly contagions that threaten senior citizens — today and in future pandemics — the ITC should recognize Neodron’s complaint for the scam that it is and reject their exclusion order request without delay.

• James L. Martin is founder and chairman of the 60 Plus Association.

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