Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced that the Obama Administration is investing in rural telecommunications equipment to help expand access to education, create jobs, and improve health care in 25 states. The announcement includes a project to enhance access to medical specialists via telemedicine in 19 rural clinics in the Columbia Gorge region of Eastern Oregon and Washington.
"These small, rural clinics will now be able to provide a much more comprehensive array of health care services and consultation with specialists located in larger medical centers,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Vicki Walker. "This USDA investment in innovation will help rural clinics overcome several challenges with providing comprehensive and coordinated medical services in small, isolated communities while helping rural residents access the specialized care they need."
A USDA Rural Development grant of $329,269 will be used to purchase telemedical equipment for a consortium of 12 health care organizations, sponsored by Kadlec Regional Medical Center (KRMC), that have banded together to serve 19 video endpoint sites at rural clinics in the geographic area along the Columbia River in Eastern Oregon and Washington State. Medical carts equipped with camera, video monitor, and medical exam devices will be purchased for the video endpoint sites and specialized servers that bridge, schedule and otherwise manage the total operation from a central location will be purchased for the hub (KRMC in Richland). Clinic sites include Boardman, Hermiston, Enterprise, Heppner and Irrigon in Oregon and Dayton, Waitsburg, Othello, Prosser, Benton City, Goldendale, Connell and Wahluke in Washington.
This announcement of nearly $16 million in USDA grants for distance learning and telemedicine services also helps to support President Obama's ConnectED initiative. In June 2013, President Obama announced an effort to connect 99 percent of America's students to high-speed Internet over the next five years. Since 2009 USDA has provided support for more than 3,300 educational institutions receiving distance learning services to help rural children get an education that is as good as that of their peers in cities.
These investments are being provided through USDA's Distance Learning and Telemedicine Loan and Grant program. It provides funding to rural hospitals, clinics, schools and libraries for equipment and technical assistance for telemedicine and distance learning. Grant recipients must demonstrate that they serve rural America, prove there is an economic need, and provide at least 15 percent in matching funds.
Since 2009, USDA has invested almost $150 million in the Distance Learning and Telemedicine program. These investments complement other USDA efforts to improve rural communications. In FY 2013, USDA provided $305 million in loans for broadband infrastructure. These loans will result in new or upgraded broadband service for about 120,000 rural households, businesses and community institutions once the projects are completed. High-speed broadband access is as vital to the educational and economic fortunes of rural America as electricity was in the 1930s and 1940s.
President Obama's plan for rural America has brought about historic investment and resulted in stronger rural communities. Under the President's leadership, these investments in housing, community facilities, businesses and infrastructure have empowered rural America to continue leading the way – strengthening America's economy, small towns and rural communities. USDA's investments in rural communities support the rural way of life that stands as the backbone of our American values.