Tester’s Bill to Expand Telehealth in Rural Montana Clears Senate

Legislation Will Increase Patientsâ?? Access to Specialty Care from Hometown Primary Care Physician

(U.S. Senate)-Senator Jon Tester’s bipartisan bill that expands access to specialty health care for rural patients was passed today by the U.S. Senate.

The Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, will expand Project ECHO, a successful telehealth initiative that is currently being used in clinics across the country to improve specialty care treatments at rural health care facilities.

“Too often folks in Montana are forced to travel long distances to receive the specialty health care treatments that aren’t offered by their local physician,” Tester said. “This bipartisan bill will expand access to life-saving treatments in communities across Montana, and ensure that folks in rural America can live a long and healthy life without having to leave their hometown.”

Project ECHO is a continuing education platform that allows primary care physicians in rural areas to participate in weekly telehealth sessions with medical professionals from across the country. During these telehealth sessions, local health care providers can present specific cases to multidisciplinary providers and work with these providers to determine the best treatments for their local patients with unique needs.

Primary care physicians enrolled in Project ECHO are then able to treat local patients with conditions that were previously outside their expertise, which allows patients to receive specialty treatments without being forced to travel long distances.

Tester’s bipartisan bill will strengthen Project ECHO by requiring:

  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to prioritize analysis and evaluation for the existing Project ECHO model and its impact on the quality of patient care.
  • The Government Accountability Office to issue a report outlining opportunities for increased expansion of Project ECHO in states like Montana.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to submit a report to Congress that identifies how current telehealth projects are funded, and recommends how to integrate these existing models into updated funding streams and grant proposals. 

The Billings Clinic launched the first Montana-based Project ECHO in January to establish an addictions and behavioral health collaboration with the Montana Department of Corrections.

The Billings Clinic has endorsed Tester’s legislation and is working to expand Project ECHO to ensure more patients are treated in the coming year.

“Project ECHO is a powerful tool that provides telementoring to clinicians, no matter where they are. This is key to keeping our colleagues in remote clinics engaged and informed. More importantly, Montanans can feel confident that they will receive high quality care in their own communities. Project ECHO allows clinicians across the state to get on the same page with regards to best practices,” said Dr. Eric Arzubi, Chair of the Psychiatry Department at the Billings Clinic.

Tester’s ECHO Act now must be taken up by the House of Representatives before it can be signed into law.