For as long as I can remember, there have been rumors of a paperless workplace, home, and essentially the world. While there is no doubt that digital media has successfully and seamlessly replaced a significant part of our printed environment, there are areas of our society that are facing some opposition in the transition. Many of us take for granted the unlimited and reliable accessibility that we have to the internet and all of the information and tools that it provides to us. With the majority of people that you or I know using the internet before anything else in the morning, it is easy to forget that some areas of the country don’t necessarily live in that way quite yet. This has come to a head with the discussion of eliminating printed information on prescriptions, delivering Social Security statements and checks, as well, and very relevant right now, the process of filing taxes.
The FDA has been examining the impact, benefits, and potential implications of eliminating the requirement for printed inserts with prescriptions. The main incentive for the Federal government is, of course, cost savings. While it should be noted that a significant amount of the argument for keeping printed paper inserts with prescriptions comes directly from paper companies and vested parties including the Consumers for Paper Options (CPO), they aim to represent the portions of the population that may be negatively impacted as well. The government has successfully transitioned some areas of its operations to paperless including the previously mentioned delivery of Social Security statements that was transitioned to digital in 2011 resulting in a reported annual savings of $72 million. With that, the government believes that considerable savings can be made through these other initiatives as well.
The FDA has a lengthy proposal on its website that details all of the actions necessary, its reasoning behind the potential change, as well as how to deal with situations such as a lack of internet or emergency situation. The FDA does not believe that any of these situations are severe enough to necessitate printed material for prescription drug information. In the case where internet access is not available such as in rural areas, the FDA will provide a fax alternative, a phone number, or email address, the latter of which makes little sense considering the lack of internet already.
While the transition seems relatively logical, I can’t help but wonder if there is some truth to what these paper companies and related trade associations are stating. Will something like this prevent some people from having access to the information that they need? Could this cause more problems related to prescription drug misuse? Is it just too soon to make a blanket change when it comes to this matter?
On to everyone’s favorite subject, taxes. While many of us hop onto Turbo Tax and do our taxes with all of those wonderful step by step instructions and then quickly put our electronic signature in and send them away, some people don’t have access to those seemingly simple resources. Recently, the IRS discontinued the mailing of paper-based tax forms and also eliminated printed instructions for completing tax forms. In 2014, over 23 million tax returns were submitted on paper, demonstrating the significant portion of our society that continues to relay on this method due to preference or accessibility. According to a recent report by the American Forest & Paper Association, 30% of the US population lacks broadband at home. Furthermore, the Pew Internet Project reported that 41% of Americans age 65 or older do not use the internet or email.
While the newer generations will not be majorly impacted by this shift, it has the potential to make filing taxes particularly hard for the aging generations. Other areas that the government has taken steps to eliminate paper from include the sale of paper savings bonds, Social Security checks, and the Veterans Administration, which invested over half-million dollars in a paperless claims system, resulting in an increase of claims that take over 125-days to process.
With this, the same questions arise…is it too soon to completely eliminate access to this information in paper format? Will people suffer or can they find ways to adapt?
Paper companies and supporters obviously have a vested interest in keeping our government printing in terms of ultimate success down to maintaining jobs in the sector. And you could argue that change has to happen sometime, which it absolutely does. However, is that time now?
Just like we are seeing in businesses today, the newer generations are dictating everything, from how we communicate to what a “cool” office environment looks like; the paperless movement will naturally transition into the public sector. However, while older generations retire from these businesses, they cannot simply “retire” from participating in our society and will need resources to keep them up-to-date on information.
While paper companies are working their hardest to keep printing relevant, some see the writing on the wall and are diversifying their operations. Domtar and International Paper have expanded their fluff pulp production and invested in areas outside of printing paper in preparation for the exact situation at hand. And they are smart, as some areas of digital technology will never replace paper!
Printed and digital communication methods have been proven time and time again to be more effective than one or the other. The internet is definitely the most life altering invention in most of our lifetimes, but are we ready to say goodbye to paper completely or will it prove that the pros don’t absolutely outweigh the cons.