Population Health Insights

HHS Awards More than $6.3 Million in Rural Telehealth Grants

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced an ambitious grant package totaling $16 million — including more than $6 million for rural telehealth funding.

Though it’s being divvied into four distinct segments — each of which deals with rural, medically underserved communities in some capacity — the grant program’s $6,286,264 allocation for the Telehealth Network Grant Program is the largest of the batch.

Under the terms of the rural telehealth grant, "21 community health organizations will each receive approximately $300,000 annually for up to 3 years to build sustainable telehealth programs and networks in medically underserved areas," the HHS states on its website.

"The program helps these communities build the human, technical and financial capacity to improve the quality of health information available to providers, patients and their families," the statement adds. "This program particularly encourages teleconnections to School Based Health Centers (SBHC) and all networks receiving this award include at least one SBHC."

"The funding is spread out across 60 communities in 32 states to improve quality of care and research to advance understanding of the unique challenges in each community," notes Heather Mack for MobiHealthNews.

Rural Telehealth Grants to ‘Help Individuals and Communities’ Access ‘High-Quality Care’

Rural and frontier communities face unique geographic barriers to obtaining comprehensive and convenient health care services,” said Jim Macrae, the acting administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), a division of the HHS. “These grants are designed to help individuals and communities access the high-quality care they need to live healthier lives.”

That movement to improve access in rural areas to technological advances in healthcare — exemplified by such telehealth programs like Care Innovations® own Health Harmony remote patient monitoring (RPM) program — has gained considerable support in recent years.

For instance, Health Harmony has already helped rural communities achieve improved care and lower costs. Those achievements are perhaps best illustrated by the Mississippi Diabetes Telehealth Network, in which the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) leveraged the Health Harmony platform to improve care for 100 diabetic patients living in rural locations.

After just one year of implementation, initial results among the patients enrolled in the program include:

  • Zero hospitalizations and ER visits for all patients
  • An 1.7% percent average A1C reduction
  • A total cost savings of $339,184

MILESTONES: UMMC Diabetes Teleheatlh Network

Telehealth Grant Program Echoes HHS Telehealth Report, Congressional Bills

It’s hard to ignore numbers like that — and, indeed, it makes it clearer why so many high-profile figures and agencies are throwing their support behind rural telehealth expansion. Currently, a bipartisan group of representatives and senators is seeking to expand Medicare coverage for telehealth services on a nationwide basis via The CONNECT for Health Act, introduced into both the Senate and the House earlier this year.

Focusing largely on the need to remove barriers currently limiting telehealth reimbursement, such as difficulties faced by patients interacting with caregivers across state lines, the CONNECT bill is still making its way through Congress.

The news of the rural telehealth grant also comes on the heels of a comprehensive HHS congressional report on telehealth. Calling it “illuminating,” the National Law Review’s René Y. Quashie summarizes the most pressing telehealth policy challenges presented by the report:

  • “Significant variability” in levels of telehealth coverage among payers
  • State licensure requirements “and the administrative burden such requirements impose on clinicians”
  • Standards of credentialing and privileging
  • “Gaps in access to affordable broadband”

Quashie goes on to describe “two nuggets” that stand out in the report. “First, the agency appears to view chronic disease management as a particularly good fit for telehealth,” he writes.

“Second, HHS signaled the importance of Medicare Advantage in any telehealth expansion effort, by including a proposal in the President’s budget request for FY 2017 to expand the ability of MA organizations to provide telehealth by eliminating … requirements that certain services be provided only in-person.”

Rural Telehealth Grants Strengthen ‘Networks of Care in Rural Areas’

“These grants encourage and support collaboration at the community level, expanding and strengthening the safety net with networks of care in rural areas,” commented Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) Associate Administrator Tom Morris, echoing these concerns. “Collaboration among different providers of health and social services within a community means shared resources, shared expertise and shared innovations.”

"Patients in rural areas are required to make a decision about living either where they are most happy OR where they can have access to quality care," said Care Innovations COO Marcus Grindstaff. "A program like this, supported by proven telehealth programs like those Care Innovations has partnered on in the most rural parts of New Finland and rural Mississippi, will enable patients to finally live where they want AND have access to quality care."

In addition to the Telehealth Network Grant Program’s $6,286,264 package, another of the four grant areas awards $900,000 for the Flex Rural Veterans Health Access Program, “a collaborative effort with the US Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Rural Health that has the primary goal of using telehealth and health information technology to bring mental health and other health services to rural-dwelling veterans."

The other two grant programs in the package also focus on rural health:

  • $4,898,583 for seven awards to Rural Health Research Centers “to conduct rural-focused health services research that helps healthcare providers and decision-makers better understand the challenges faced by rural communities”
  • $4,065,624 for 21 awards in Small Health Care Provider Quality Improvement “to improve the quality of care for populations with high rates of chronic conditions” with a focus “on providing support to rural primary care providers”

Technically, the rural telehealth grant is being administered by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP), which is itself a division of the HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). For more information, view the official HHS announcement here.

Learn more about the power of telehealth: Request a call from Care Innovations today to learn more about how Health Harmony can transform care for your organization or community.