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HHS Grants to Help Native Americans Expand Telehealth Resources

Federal officials are disbursing more than $50 million in grants to American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes to help expand access to mental health and opioid abuse services, often through telehealth.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Federal officials are earmarking more than $50 million to expand telehealth programs and other healthcare service to help American Indian and Alaska Native tribes address opioid abuse.

The funding, through the Health and Human Services Department’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Tribal Opioid Response grant program, will go toward connected health programs that improve access to care for one of the country’s most underserved populations.

One such program under the spotlight these days is Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) therapy, which combines mental health counseling with prescribed medication – often either Methadone, Naltrexone or Buprenorphine – in a regimen carefully monitored by a certified provider. Digital health advocates have said a telehealth or mHealth platform can improve this treatment by increasing access and giving providers more opportunities to monitor their patients.

The Tribal Opioid Response grant program “will help provide access to a wide array of treatment solutions for tribal communities, including medication-assisted treatment,” HHS Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a press release. “Accessing treatment services can be especially challenging in rural areas like many parts of Indian Country. We will continue to engage with tribal nations through the Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee and community visits to hear concerns and develop programs that build on the strengths of tribal culture and customs.”

“The intent of awarding the grants is unmistakable – we know people who have OUDs (opioid abuse disorder) are not accessing effective, evidence-based treatment often enough,” added Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use. “We want to reduce unmet treatment needs and opioid-related fatal overdoses by strengthening communities’ provision of treatment and psychosocial services.” 

Separately, HHS officials this week announced three grants totaling $6.2 million, also through SAMHSA, to help Alaska’s Fairbanks Native Association and Tanana Chiefs Conference address OUD and mental health issues in the younger populations in that state’s largest city.

The $50 million grant package is part of more than $930 million in grants handed out by SAMHSA to increase access to MAT therapy programs across the country, primarily through state programs.

In addition, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is administering more than $396 million to enable HRSA-funded community health centers, academic institutions, and rural organizations to expand access to integrated substance use disorder and mental health services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is awarding almost $156 million to increase support for states and territories working to prevent opioid-related overdoses, deaths, and other outcomes.

Also, Senate and House negotiators have molded two versions of opioid crisis response legislation – containing all of parts of more than 70 bills filed this year in Congress – into one bill for a final vote before it heads to the President’s desk. The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act (H.R. 6) includes several nods to telehealth and telemedicine, including easing restrictions to Medicare reimbursement for telehealth programs.

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