MCD Awarded Federal Grant to Improve Access to Telehealth in Rural Maine

Nov. 15, 2021

Health worker assisting a patient over telehealth technology

Medical Care Development’s domestic public health division (MCDPH) is one of three organizations in Maine that will share a $730,510 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

The federal investment through MCDPH will total $254,192 over the next three years. The goal is to improve access to tele-behavioral health services and improving outcomes associated with substance and opioid use disorders, specifically in Aroostook and Washington counties in Maine.

In partnership with Aroostook Mental Health Center, the National Digital Equity Center, and local community residents, MCDPH will work to assure that AMHC can provide behavioral health support to as many people as possible. This effort is projected to benefit more than 2,200 residents in those counties. The National Digital Equity Center will provide training and technical assistance for those residents who are new at accessing care through telehealth. They will also assist individuals with access to internet-enabled devices and subsidized internet access.

“Not only does this project increase capacity to help more people receive behavioral health services, but it also facilitates access to that care in their local community, saving both hours and miles driving long distances to traditional appointments,” said Kate Perkins, senior program manager at MCDPH.

Those who have chronic conditions and lack access to physical clinics are more likely to visit emergency departments (ED) for necessary care. Telehealth can help reduce ED visits and chronic disease by improving local access to preventive care and monitoring of their health conditions. Insurance industry standards suggest that when people have consistent preventive and illness care, there will be around 140 ED visits per 1,000 insured people per year. Recent rates were two times that in many parts of these two counties and three times that in specific areas within Washington County.

This initiative hopes to establish Maine Community Connection Centers, which will be publicly available, secure digital access sites for rural residents to use to access other types of medical care via telehealth. A locally led process is underway to guide efforts in creating the first of these sites.

In addition to the funds awarded by USDA, the project would not be possible without support provided by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and the Maine Health Access Foundation.

The University of Maine System and Unity College are the other two organizations who received funding that will focus on improving distance learning and telemedicine in schools across the state.

USDA Rural Development Maine Acting State Director Tommy Higgins said, “This investment will help provide increased access to education and health care services for 174,400 rural Maine people. Through distance learning and telemedicine equipment, rural students will have access to state-of-the-art technology to broaden their horizons, while rural patients will have access to quality health care without having to travel long distances.”

This grant is part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda that prioritizes economic growth in rural areas of the U.S. and individuals who are considered to be in the middle class.

The three grants being utilized in Maine are part of a $50 million investment in 105 rural distance learning and telemedicine projects in 37 states and Puerto Rico. The awards are being funded through USDA’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine program, which helps fund distance learning and telemedicine services in rural areas to increase access to education, training, and health care resources that are otherwise limited or unavailable.