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HRSA Grants Target Telehealth for Veterans, Schools, Chronic Care

The federal agency is doling out roughly $16 million to help healthcare providers reach rural and underserved populations, often by using telehealth technology.

By Eric Wicklund

- Healthcare providers in Alaska, Missouri and South Carolina are getting federal grants of almost $1 million apiece to push telehealth resources out to veterans living in rural areas.

The grants are part of an ambitious effort by the Health Resources and Services Administration to support technology that extends healthcare to remote and underserved populations. Along with the three grants aimed at veterans, the HRSA is supporting 21 community health programs focusing on school health services, seven university-based research centers studying population health challenges in rural communities, and 21 rural clinics and health centers tasked with improving chronic care management.

“Rural and frontier communities face unique geographic barriers to obtaining comprehensive and convenient healthcare services,” Jim Macrae, the HRSA’s acting administrator, said in announcing the grants earlier this month in Washington D.C.  “These grants are designed to help individuals and communities access the high-quality care they need to live healthier lives.” 

The HRSA grants follow several recent announcements that put telehealth and mHealth at the forefront of federal efforts to tackle healthcare challenges. Last month, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) launched a three-year, $9 million program to train rural healthcare providers to use telehealth to treat patients struggling with opioid abuse issues. That came on the heels of the latest round of U.S. Department of Agriculture Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grants, 36 of which are going to providers to bolster their telehealth platforms.

Among several telehealth-flavored bills before Congress, meanwhile, is the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, a proposal from Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would make the University of New Mexico’s project ECHO program a national model to help rural healthcare providers collaborate via telehealth.

Collaboration is also a prime component of the programs receiving HRSA support.

“These grants encourage and support collaboration at the community level, expanding and strengthening the safety net with networks of care in rural areas,” Tom Morris, associate administrator of the HRSA’s Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, which administers the grants, said in prepared remarks. “Collaboration among different providers of health and social services within a community means shared resources, shared expertise and shared innovations.”

The grants also target a couple of hot-button issues in healthcare: access to care for veterans and people with chronic conditions.

This past March, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Health Administration wasn’t meeting the needs of newly enrolled veterans seeking healthcare services. This issue was particularly acute for veterans struggling with behavioral health issues like PTSD.

With the Flex Rural Veterans Health Access Program, launched three years ago through a collaboration with the VA’s Office of Rural Health, the South Carolina Office of Rural Health, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services will each get $300,000 a year for three years to “use telehealth and health information technology to bring mental health and other health services to veterans living in rural areas.”

In the Small Health Care Provider Quality Improvement program, 21 clinics and health centers in 15 states will receive between $130,000 and $200,000 a year over the next three years to “improve the quality of care for populations with high rates of chronic conditions.” The grants stress using evidence-based quality improvement activities and standards of care, as well as using information technology to collect and report data.

The HRSA is also recognizing the value in and popularity of school-based telehealth programs.

The Telehealth Network Grant Program will serve out grants of roughly $300,000 a year for the next three years to 21 community health organizations in 19 states “to build sustainable telehealth programs and networks in medically underserved areas. … This program particularly encourages teleconnections to School Based Health Centers (SBHC) and all networks receiving this award include at least one SBHC.”

Finally, the universities of Southern Maine, Minnesota, Iowa, Kentucky, Washington and North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Texas A&M University will each receive $700,000 a year for four years “to conduct rural-focused health services research that helps healthcare providers and decision-makers better understand the challenges faced by rural communities and provide information that will inform policies designed to improve access to healthcare and population health.” 

Dig Deeper:

Project ECHO Poised to Become a National Telehealth Model

Telehealth Rallies Behind the CONNECT Act

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