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HHS invests $8 million to address gaps in rural telehealth through the Telehealth Broadband Pilot Program

The program will be implemented in four state community locations, including in Alaska, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Health Resources and Services Administration, has awarded $8 million to fund the Telehealth Broadband Pilot program, which assesses the broadband capacity available to rural healthcare providers and patient communities to improve their access to telehealth.

Through the new program, $6.5 million was awarded to the National Telehealth Technology Assessment Resource Center (TTAC), based out of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The TTAC works in the area of technology assessment and selecting appropriate technologies for a variety of telehealth services.

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TTAC will implement the TBP in four state community locations, including in Alaska, Michigan, Texas and West Virginia. TTAC will also work with the Rural Telehealth Initiative's federal partners to improve rural communities' access to broadband and telehealth services through existing funding opportunities and grant programs.

HRSA's Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) also awarded the Telehealth-Focused Rural Health Research Center through the University of Arkansas $1.5 million to evaluate the TBP program across all participating communities and to serve as a resource on telehealth for rural communities across the country.

The telehealth broadband pilot program is a three-year pilot and the result of the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed on September 1, 2020 by the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

The memorandum also created the Rural Telehealth Initiative, a cross-cutting multi-department initiative that coordinates programs to expand broadband capacity and increase telehealth access to improve healthcare in rural areas.

THE LARGER TREND

Due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth has evolved from an alternative means of care to one of the primary ways in which many patients seek treatment.

That's reflected in the numbers: In 2020, virtual care is expected to account for more than 20% of all medical visits in the U.S., a result that in turn is projected to drive $29 billion in total healthcare services.

Those numbers were revealed this past autumn in Doximity's 2020 State of Telemedicine Report, which also found that up to $106 billion of current U.S. healthcare spend could be virtualized by 2023. This highlights the high rates of adoption among both patients and physicians, and the impetus felt among providers to offer safe, secure and easy-to-use virtual services as demand for telehealth continues to grow.

In August, the National Poll on Healthy Aging found that patient comfort levels with telehealth have increased. Back in 2019, most older adults expressed at least one serious concern about trying a telehealth visit. But by mid-2020, the percentage with such concerns had eased, especially among those who had experienced a virtual visit between March and June of that year.

Twitter: @JELagasse
Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com