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Avera Tabbed to Provide Telehealth to Indian Health Services Network

The South Dakota-based health system will extend its telehealth network to a troubled health system spanning 7 hospitals and serving 130,000 Native Americans.

By Eric Wicklund

- Avera Health has signed a contract to provide telehealth services to several rural Midwest health systems plagued by access issues and reports of substandard care.

The one-year, $6.8 million contract will enable the South Dakota-based health system to extends its already-notable telehealth platform to providers in the Indian Health Service, which earlier this year was told by federal investigators to overhaul its services. The Great Plains IHS covers seven hospitals, 15 health centers and several clinics in the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska, serving roughly 130,000 Native Americans.

Avera, based in Sioux Falls, S.D., and covering a five-state region and more than 300 facilities, will provide behavioral health, cardiology, maternal and child healthcare services, pain management, nephrology, rheumatology, wound care, ear, nose and throat care and dermatology, as well as additional emergency medical services.

“It is challenging to provide specialty healthcare in rural areas, and this is especially true in Indian Country,” IHS Principal Deputy Director Mary L. Smith said in a statement announcing the contract. “IHS has long been a leader in information technology and electronic health records, and IHS experience shows that telemedicine is an effective way to increase access to quality healthcare services in remote, hard-to-reach areas.”

The health network came under scrutiny earlier this year, when a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review uncovered excessive wait times at several locations. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services then threatened to reduce or eliminate reimbursements unless the HIS revamped some of its programs.

The contract with Avera is a one-year deal, but can be extended up to five years’ total, with a maximum value of $100 million.  

Avera, which last year launched the consumer-facing AveraNow telehealth service, has been providing telehealth and digital health services to a broad network of healthcare providers through its eCare platform for several years. That network now includes, among other locations, schools and senior and assisted living facilities.

The health system’s expertise was recently noticed by NATO, which last year sought Avera’s help in creating a multinational telehealth platform that could extend into parts of the world affected by wars or natural disasters.

A telehealth platform for the Great Plains region could lead to more benefits. In South Dakota, Gov. Dennis Daugaard has said that if the state is able to improve its CMS reimbursements for IHS healthcare services delivered to Medicaid-eligible residents, thus reducing stress on the state’s budget, he would call a special legislative session to consider expanding the program. 

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