- The Biden administration has benchmarked more than $19 million in grants to expand telehealth in rural and underserved communities, which have continued to lack access to care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The investments will provide funding to train primary care providers, bolster groups providing virtual care, pilot new telehealth services and research the efficacy of digitally delivered care in rural geographies.
- The $19 million will be distributed to 36 awardees through the HHS Health Resources and Services Administration, the agency said Wednesday.
Telehealth utilization skyrocketed last year during the pandemic, but fell off slightly early this year as widespread vaccination efforts caused case loads to drop. But now, as the U.S. sees surging COVID-19 infections due to the delta variant and hospitals in many areas delaying nonemergent procedures, early evidence suggests patients are once again turning to virtual care in droves to access needed medical services.
But as Washington continues to deliberate how much telehealth access will be allowed after the public health emergency expires, the Biden administration is looking to bolster virtual care to ensure access as COVID-19 continues to slam the U.S.
In a Wednesday statement on the new disbursements, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said telehealth is "crucial" to providing convenient and sustained healthcare, especially in rural areas.
Even before the pandemic, patients in rural areas faced severe disparities in healthcare access and outcomes. According to a February study from the Chartis Group, more than 130 rural hospitals have closed in the past decade, while more than 450 are currently vulnerable to closure. And though 20% of Americans live in rural areas, fewer than 10% of the nation's physicians practice there, according to the American Hospital Association.
President Joe Biden's "Build Back Better" agenda, which includes the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March, includes measures to bolster rural healthcare and has already resulted in funding flowing to underserved areas.
In June, HRSA provided $425 million to rural health clinics for COVID-19 testing and mitigation; while in July, the agency allocated $100 million to rural health clinics to promote the COVID-19 vaccine, and $398 million to small rural hospitals for COVID-19 testing and mitigation efforts. And earlier this month, the Biden administration allocated $90 million to help rural communities combat substance abuse.
Proponents of telehealth also point to the technology's potential to ameliorate pervasive access problems in rural America. The new funding from HHS announced Wednesday include investments through four of eight active programs in HRSA's Office for the Advancement of Telehealth.
In the Telehealth Technology-Enabled Learning Program, $4.28 million is going to nine health organizations to build tele-mentoring programs and networks in rural and medically underserved communities, HHS said.
The funds are to help specialists at academic medical centers train and support primary care providers to treat patients with complex conditions. Recipients include the American Academy of Pediatrics, Oregon Health & Science University and the University of New Mexico
Then, $4.55 million is going to 12 regional and two national telehealth resource centers, which support organizations that provide or want to provide telehealth to patients. The two national centers are the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the California-based Public Health Institute, while regional recipients include the University of Utah, the University of Arizona, the California Telehealth Network and the Indiana Rural Health Association.
The Evidence-Based Direct to Consumer Telehealth Network Program is awarding $3.85 million to 11 organizations, to help health networks increase access to virtual care.
The funds, which are going to groups including the HealtHIE Georgia Corporation and Texas A&M University, will expand access to health services in primary care, acute care and behavioral health care.
Finally, $6.5 million in the Telehealth Centers of Excellence program is being split between academic medical centers the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina to research how virtual care can improve healthcare in rural medically underserved areas with high chronic disease prevalence and high poverty rates.