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Department of Agriculture to distribute $23.4 million in telemedicine grants

Observers of last week’s National Rural Health Day had something extra to celebrate this year, after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) promised telemedicine grants to 31 states.

The USDA committed a total of $23.4 million in telemedicine grants to 75 projects. Tom Vilsack, secretary of agriculture, announced the investment and explained it is being made to extend quality care to people in remote areas. “Rural communities often lack access to specialized medical care or advanced educational opportunities,” he said.

The telemedicine grants are part of the USDA Rural Development Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, which is meant to connect rural populations with healthcare providers and educators through telecommunications.

The USDA announcement included details about the individual projects that the funds will be dedicated to. For example, Baptist Healthcare System, Inc. in Kentucky will receive more than $180,000 to purchase and set up videoconferencing equipment to interact with patients in Kentucky and Tennessee. The North Slope Borough in Alaska will get more than $420,000 to buy similar equipment and use it to link six clinics, a hospital and four end user sites.

Alaska’s well-established state telemedicine program dates back to 1999. The combination of isolated locations, small populations and vast land mass is why healthcare professionals in Alaska can’t always depend on traditional methods to treat patients. Some small communities in the state are without medical professionals. In those areas, community health aides enter patient data into the telemedicine system.

While the USDA telemedicine grants will go toward improving care for patients in rural areas, there’s another group that’s been the focus of other recent efforts for broadening the practice of telemedicine. U.S. veterans stand to benefit from the proposed Veterans E-Health & Telemedicine Support Act of 2015. The bill would allow qualified U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare professionals to treat veterans across state borders and forego state licensure requirements.

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