Biden Administration Supports Rural Telehealth Expansion

rural telehealth communities

The telehealth boom sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic has leveled off for now but many rural communities are still not reaping the benefits of telemedicine.

One in five Americans live in a rural area. In most of these areas healthcare resources are unevenly distributed, thus creating a shortage of services. Although geographic areas vary widely, rural populations overall suffer higher incidences of disease and disability, increased mortality rates, and lower life expectancies. According to the CDC, rural Americans have a greater risk of death from heart disease, accidental injury, chronic respiratory diseases, and strokes than urban residents.

The pandemic exacerbated these disparities, with a shortage of ICU beds and fewer physicians per capita in rural areas vs. urban communities. Emergency and chronic disease management can be helped with access to physicians and services through telehealth but the technology infrastructure, outreach, and education needs must be met first.

Closing the gap

Journalist Mark Walker gives a comprehensive account of the ongoing efforts to reach rural citizens in his NY Times article “Biden Administration Seeks to Expand Telehealth in Rural America”. Fifteen percent of the rural population makes up some of the sickest patients in the United States. Facts like these have become even more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) will be distributing nearly $20 million to reinforce telehealth services in underserved communities, including:

  • $4 million to help bring telehealth visits for primary, acute, and mental health care to 11 states with rural populations most affected. These funds will also help update clinic technology, train doctors and nurses, and teach patients how to use virtual appointments.
  • $4.3 million to specialists at academic medical centers to start “tele-mentoring” programs with rural primary care providers, teaching them how to treat patients with complex conditions via telehealth programs.

Ongoing support

Although the recent $20 million dollar investment is important, it is far from the only program that has been implemented in this ongoing effort. As part of the American Rescue Plan (August 2021), billions of dollars were allocated to rural communities for telehealth, rebuilding and establishing healthcare infrastructure, and to address virus-related programs.

The Veteran’s Administration (VA) has also received support for its programs, with more than $8 billion to help mitigate COVID-related expenses and provide veteran care. Rural communities received about $350 million to distribute food, medical supplies, and vaccines to those who need it.

More to the story

Mark Walker continues the full deep dive into how this affects accessibility, education and more here.

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