Biden administrator awards $55 million in virtual care grants to community health centers

Diving brief:

  • The Biden administration is giving nearly $55 million to community health centers to implement telehealth, digital patient tools, and health information technology in underserved communities.
  • The pot will be distributed among 29 health centers funded by the HHS Health Resources and Services Administration, HHS announced Monday. It builds on more than $7.3 billion in funding from the U.S. bailout passed in March that has already been sent to community health centers over the past year to help mitigate the impact of COVID. -19.
  • HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said at the National Association of Community Health Centers’ annual policy meeting Monday that the Biden administration will continue to “step up” to help the centers, which provide care to most people. Low-income Americans, including working with Congress to try to double their funding.

Overview of the dive:

The pandemic has skyrocketed the use of virtual care, as patients demanded digital access to their doctors amid shutdowns and access soared due to more flexible regulations from Washington. As a result, providers — including federally funded community health centers — have rapidly expanded their virtual care capabilities.

These centers saw their number of virtual visits increase from about 480,000 in 2019 to 28.6 million in 2020. In addition, the number of health centers offering telehealth more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, HHS said. .

Becerra said virtual care has been a game-changer for patients, and the new funding will help health centers implement the latest technologies to expand access to primary care for underserved communities. Virtual care, which can help medical providers reach people regardless of location or income, should be provided by community health centers wherever possible, the secretary said.

“We want community health centers to be in this game,” Becerra said Monday. The Biden administration’s goal with the funding is to help centers invest in telehealth, enabling them to provide virtual care beyond the reach of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

Although federal restrictions on access to virtual care have been temporarily relaxed over the past two years, many will be reinstated once the PHE expires without congressional action. However, codifying telehealth flexibilities enjoys bipartisan support, and action on the Hill this year is likely, as a number of bills have been proposed that would remove some of the barriers to telehealth.

HRSA is awarding a total of $54.6 million in one-time funding to 29 health centers to “develop, implement and evaluate” strategies that would use virtual care to increase access and improve clinical quality for underserved communities. served and vulnerable populations, and which can be extended to other health centres.

This round of financing heads to six centers in California; five in New York; two each in Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois and Massachusetts; and one each in Arizona, Connecticut, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, Puerto Rico and Washington.

Currently, there are more than 1,400 HRSA-supported health centers in the United States that provide medical, dental, and behavioral services to nearly 29 million at-risk patients each year. More than 90% of these patients live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, while about 62% are racial or ethnic minorities.

Community centers have been a key part of the public health response to COVID-19. By the end of January, health centers had delivered more than 19.2 million doses of the vaccine, with the majority going into the arms of racial or ethnic minority patients, according to HHS. There is evidence that hard work pays dividends, like analysis suggests that there have been fewer COVID-19 infections and deaths in areas where a community health center is active.

Despite the ARP’s billions in funding, community health centers — which are chronically underfunded not even in a pandemic year — have called for more help for COVID-19.

In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2022, President Joe Biden has pledged to work with Congress to double federal investment in community health centers. It’s an effort the president still supports, but which is bogged down in Congress as the legislature debates its budget for the current fiscal year, Becerra said.

He wants to double that amount of funding and we’re with him and we’d like that to happen and then we get to the reality that’s called Congress,” Becerra told NACHC on Monday. The legislature has yet to pass a budget for fiscal year 2022, funding the government in place since October through a stopgap measure freezing funding at last year’s levels.

The secretary noted that it is unclear how much money Congress will ultimately allocate to community health centers, although there are discussions that the body has entered into a framework agreement on the provision of long-term financing for the remainder of the year.

“Stay tuned,” Becerra said.

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