On November 5th, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the “Rural TECH Act of 2009” to enhance community health. As he said when he introduced the bill, “As we continue to move forward with healthcare reform, we must make sure that we do not leave our rural communities behind. In my home state of New Mexico, 30 out of 33 counties are designated as medically underserved. I only hope that we use technology to connect experts with providers, facilities, and patients in rural areas, so that critical healthcare services are extended to underserved areas across the country.”
The bill would establish three telehealth pilot projects to analyze clinical health outcomes and the cost effectiveness of telehealth systems in medically underserved and tribal areas. The first pilot would focus on using telehealth for behavioral health interventions such as post traumatic stress disorder and would also explore reimbursement methods for third party payers. A second pilot project would focus on increasing the capacity of healthcare workers to provide health services especially for chronic complex diseases in rural areas using knowledge networks like New Mexico’s Project ECHO. Also proposed is a pilot project for stroke evaluation, treatment, and rehabilitation using telehealth technologies.
In addition, the bill would expand access to stroke telehealth services under the Medicare program. Primary Stroke Centers in the state are not accessible to much of the population. For example, there is only one certified Primary Stroke Center in the state located at the University of New Mexico Hospital and in New Mexico alone, there are almost 173,000 Medicare beneficiaries who could gain access to telestroke services.
The bill would improve access to “store and forward” telehealth services in IHS and federally qualified health centers. These services would permit rural health facilities to hold and share transmission to use for medical training and to obtain diagnostic information plus other data.
The bill would also reimburse IHS facilities as originating sites and would establish regulations to consider credentialing and privileging standards for originating sites in order to receive telehealth services.
In another piece of legislation to help doctors deal with the costs for technology, Senator John Kerry on November 10th introduced the “Small Business Health Information Technology Financing Act of 2009 (S 2765)” to enable family doctors and other small medical practices to be eligible for SBA loans. These loans would cover the costs of health information technology needed to create electronic health records and prescriptions and would include computer hardware, software, and other technologies.
The maximum amount of the loans may not be more than $350,000 for one qualified eligible professional and $2,000,000 for one group of affiliated qualified eligible professionals.