A new milestone was reached today as the United States Senate unanimously passed (97-0) the first standalone telemedicine bill ever to receive a recorded vote on the chamber floor. S. 2873, also known as the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, seeks to integrate the University of New Mexico School of Medicine’s “Project ECHO” telehealth model into the national healthcare system to increase access to care in rural areas of the country.
Originally launched in 2003, Project ECHO was introduced with the intention of expanding access to Hepatitis C treatment in the state of New Mexico to those in rural locations by tele-connecting specialists with primary care providers and their patients. The specialists can then mentor and train other providers or their patients on how to best manage their condition. The concept spread like wildfire, with dozens of academic medical centers in the United States and 10 other countries now operating “teleECHO” clinics that address over 40 specific health conditions. Sponsored in part by the American Medical Association, the bill hopes to bridge geographic divides, increase access to specialty care, reduce chronic disease incidence, and shrink costs associated with reduced travel and fewer trips to the ER.
The bill hosts the following requirements:
- Requires the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in collaboration with the Health Resources & Services Administration, to analyze the model for its impact on provider capacity and workforce issues, and evidence of its effects on quality of patient care.
- A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report outlining opportunities to adopt similar models, efficiencies and potential cost savings of those models, the efficacy of those models in health care, and field recommendations to advance their use.
- A report submitted by the HHS Secretary to Congress on the findings of the aforementioned reports, demonstrating how these models can be integrated into current funding streams and grant proposals.
With only 10% of physicians in the U.S. practicing in rural areas and the many challenges associated with recruiting providers to work in these locations, Project ECHO represents an historic advancement for telemedicine at a pivotal point in the development of health care delivery. Moving forward, all eyes will be on Washington to ensure advancement of this critical legislation.