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Senate Passes Bill to Use Project ECHO as Nationwide Telehealth Model

November 29, 2016
by Heather Landi
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The U.S. Senate today passed the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, which is legislation that aims to increase access to healthcare in rural areas by authorizing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to study the Project ECHO model.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 97-0. Introduced by U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the bill, S. 2873, proposes to expand New Mexico’s Project ECHO as a national model for using telehealth for rural care.

As previously reported by Healthcare Informatics, Project ECHO launched in 2003 at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, with a focus on treating hepatitis C and has since grown significantly across the globe and across numerous other health conditions. Dozens of academic medical centers in the U.S. now operate teleECHO clinics that address more than 40 health conditions. Globally, teleECHO clinics are running in 10 countries.

Refered to in the bill as "technology-enabled collaborative learning and capacity building models," the Project ECHO program is a distance health education model that connects specialists with multiple other healthcare professionals through simultaneous interactive videoconferencing for case-learning and to share best practices and evaluate health outcomes.

The bill would require the Secretary of HHS to study the model and examine the impact of the model on addressing mental and substance use disorders and chronic diseases, the impact on provider capacity and workforce issues and the delivery of healthcare services in rural areas and medically underserved areas.

Additionally, the legislation would require the HHS Secretary to submit a report to Congress about the use and integration of these models by healthcare providers and the impact on healthcare provider retention as well as on the quality of, and access to, care for patients. The report should also address barriers faced by healthcare providers in adopting these models and ways such models have been funded by HHS. And, the bill requires that the report provide recommendations for reducing the barriers for using and integrating these models as well as address opportunities to improve adoption and specifically to increase adoption of the  telehealth model into existing HHS programs.

A previous version of the bill instructed the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to complete a report regarding opportunities for increased adoption of such models, efficiencies and potential cost savings from such models and ways to improve health care through such models. This provision was removed from the bill that passed the Senate this week.

According to statements from Hatch and Schatz, the bill would address a number of rural health challenges. Only about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural areas of the country despite nearly one-fourth of the population living in these areas. Rural areas have higher rates of some chronic diseases and face many challenges, including transportation, connectivity, and isolation. And, it can be difficult to recruit healthcare providers to work in rural and underserved areas, and opportunities for professional development and support in such areas can be difficult.

“We’re now one step closer to supporting new ways to train health providers and deliver health care,” Senator Schatz, a member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, said in a statement. “Technology is changing the way medical professionals connect with each other and their patients. Our bill capitalizes on this technology to give health professionals in hard-to-reach areas the specialized training they need and help them reach more patients.”

“On a recent visit to southern Utah, I had the opportunity to visit a rural health center and speak to some of the families that rely on services included in the ECHO Act,” Senator Hatch said in a statement. “Some of these individuals had health conditions that required specialized care or could be managed much closer to home by health professionals they know and trust. By using technology to connect patients and providers, this bill will benefit Utah’s families by helping them receive the care they need, when they need it.”

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