HHS awards $55 million to boost telehealth at community health centers

Telehealth use has surged in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Biden administration is aiming to ensure more access in underserved communities.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has awarded $55 million to expand virtual care options at community health centers across the country.

The Health Resources and Services Administration is distributing the grants to 29 health centers that offer care in underserved communities, HHS said Monday. The grants range from about $1 million to $2 million. The money will be used for telemedicine, remote patient monitoring, digital patient tools, and information technology platforms, the agency said.

Xavier Becerra, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, said the grants support President Biden’s aims at bolstering healthcare equity across all groups.

“Virtual care has been a game-changer for patients, especially during the pandemic,” Becerra said in a statement. “This funding will help health centers leverage the latest technology and innovations to expand access to quality primary care for underserved communities.”

Telehealth has surged in popularity, largely out of necessity, during the COVID-19 pandemic. HRSA’s community health centers offered 28.5 million virtual care appointments in 2020, a 6,000% increase over the previous year (there were 478,333 virtual appointments in 2019).

In 2020, 1,362 community health centers offered virtual visits, more than double the previous year.

HRSA Administrator Carole Johnson said in a statement the money “will help ensure that new ways to deliver primary care are reaching the communities that need it most.”

“Our funding will help health centers continue to expand their virtual work while maintaining their vital in-person services in communities across the country,” Johnson said.

The Biden Administration has been taking steps to expand telehealth access and ensure fair access across all groups.

A recent federal study showed disparities in access to telehealth, with Black, Latino and Asian American patients using video telehealth services less than white patients. It's a concern because video telehealth appointments allow doctors to see their patients and get a better gauge of their condition, compared to audio-only appointments.

Another report from Teva Pharmaceuticals and the Morehouse School of Medicine found more evidence of inconsistencies in access to telehealth service. The report stated 36% of doctors and 49% of pharmacists said most of their patients couldn’t easily access telehealth services, due to a lack of computer or wi-fi access.

Here’s the full list of community health centers receiving aid to expand telehealth services.

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