Senate OK’s bill to improve rural health care

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Exterior of the main entrance at North Valley Hospital. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan bill Tuesday that could expand access to specialty health care for rural patients in states like Montana where services are often scattered.

The Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes Act, or the ECHO Act, would pull federal resources toward studying telehealth technology and models to improve patient care in communities often separated from medical support.

Catherine Todd with North Valley Hospital said she’s watched telehealth spread through the Flathead Valley in recent years. The Whitefish hospital has used telehealth to expand its behavioral health services to people who Todd said otherwise “fall through the cracks.”

Todd said while she’s still learning about the act, she’s excited to see a growth of support for the technology that allows doctors and patients to reduce geographic barriers by virtually connecting.

“It’s really important in those rural settings, where there’s a greater challenge to reach services, especially in the winter,” Todd said.

THE ACT would expand Project ECHO, a telehealth initiative currently used in clinics across the country to improve specialty care treatments within rural facilities. Primary care physicians enrolled in the project are able to treat local patients with conditions that were previously outside their expertise.

The continuing education platform allows primary care physicians in rural areas to participate in weekly telehealth sessions with medical professionals from across the country. During the sessions, local health-care providers can present specific cases to multidisciplinary providers to narrow down treatments for patients with complicated needs.

Both U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., co-sponsored the bill.

Daines said the bill help creates equality in access to health care.

“Geographic location should not dictate quality of care,” Daines said. “This bill will promote opportunities to increasingly open up access to high-quality care in rural communities that is not currently available.”

BEFORE IT’S signed into law, the House of Representatives must take up the act.

If passed, the new act would require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to analyze the project’s model and its impact on the quality of patient care. The department would also be responsible to submit a report to Congress to identify how current telehealth projects are funded and how to continue pulling funds into the projects through new outlets.

The Government Accountability Office would be in charge of outlining opportunities to create Project ECHO in states like Montana.

Tester said he’s happy to see a bill that helps keep Montanans at home.

“Too often folks in Montana are forced to travel long distances to receive the specialty health care treatments that aren’t offered by their local physician,” Tester said. “This bipartisan bill will expand access to life-saving treatments in communities across Montana, and ensure that folks in rural America can live a long and healthy life without having to leave their hometown.”

The Billings Clinic launched the first Montana-based Project ECHO in January to establish an addictions and behavioral health collaboration with the Montana Department of Corrections.

Dr. Eric Arzubi, Chair of the Psychiatry Department at the Billings Clinic, said the project is a powerful tool that improves collaboration between clinics across the state.

“This is key to keeping our colleagues in remote clinics engaged and informed,” Arzubi said. “More importantly, Montanans can feel confident that they will receive high quality care in their own communities. Project ECHO allows clinicians across the state to get on the same page with regards to best practices.”

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

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