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Telehealth Benefits from $1 Billion in HHS, USDA Investments

By Jennifer Bresnick

- Telehealth is now reaching more patients than ever before thanks to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which have invested approximately $1 billion over the past two years in broadband internet development and other health IT resources for rural healthcare providers in thirteen states. 

Telehealth investments

In a blog post on Health IT Buzz, National Coordinator Karen DeSalvo, MD, MPH, MSc and USDA Administrator of Rural Utilities Service Brandon McBride outline their departments’ efforts to expand telehealth services to far-flung patients while bolstering the use of EHRs and other technologies in vulnerable critical access hospitals.

After President Obama announced the White House Rural Council Initiative in 2011, HHS and the USDA took on the challenge of distributing grants, awards, and other funding to help spread telehealth to patients in need of primary and specialty care across thinly populated regions of the country. 

“These investments, funded by USDA, included grants and loans to help rural clinics and hospitals transition from paper to electronic health records (EHRs), encourage exchange of health information with health care providers and patients, and offer telehealth services,” DeSalvo and McBride explain.  “The initiative was designed to address the need for financing to support the adoption of health IT systems in rural communities.  Financing has been cited as one of the top challenges for rural doctors and hospitals serving remote and poor communities.”

Patients served by critical access hospitals (CAHs) often need specialty services that are not available within reasonable driving distance.  From telestroke programs that speed life-saving treatment to remote monitoring in the ICU, telehealth has significantly improved care quality and patient outcomes in areas experiencing physician shortages or a lack of available in-house resources.

Between 2012 and 2014, the USDA and HHS have helped to strengthen reliable broadband internet access in rural areas that could benefit from increased telehealth use.  With the aid of both governmental and private partners, the departments have provided financial assistance to providers who wished to adopt EHRs in pursuit of meaningful use, develop telehealth programs for specialty care, or ensure greater access to primary care services for underserved communities.

“HHS and USDA launched a series of activities to link rural communities to funding from USDA Rural Development financing assistance programs, including the Community Facilities grant and loan programs, the Rural Economic Development Loan & Grant Program (REDLG) program and the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant program,” the blog post says.  “For example, the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) made available a new Rural Health IT Loan Fund to help health care providers across eight states. Through this initiative, DRA offered interest free loans to small practices, particularly physicians and dentists in underserved areas to assist with adoption and meaningful use of EHRs.”

HHS and the USDA have also engaged in a series of listening sessions with providers across numerous rural areas, hoping to target specific issues that are affecting patients and healthcare organizations in regions with special needs.  By the end of 2014, discussions about telehealth and other health IT infrastructure had taken place in Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee, Missouri, Montana, Wyoming and Kentucky.

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