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Heinrich Welcomes Senate Passage Of Bill To Expand Innovative UNM Rural Tele-Health Program

Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM)
Rep. Martin Heinrich (D-NM)

Commentary: Today, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) welcomed the Senate’s passage of S. 2873, the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, a bill to boost access to high-quality health care in hard-to-reach regions. Senator Heinrich is a cosponsor of the bill, which aims to better integrate the University of New Mexico School of Medicine’s groundbreaking Project ECHO telehealth model into health systems across the country.

“Families across New Mexico, including in our rural and tribal communities, deserve access to high-quality health care no matter where they live,” said Sen. Heinrich, who highlighted Project ECHO at an event in the U.S. Capitol in June. “Project ECHO, started at the University of New Mexico, is using technology to train and connect health care specialists to patients in our underserved communities. We have already seen it succeed in addressing some of our health care system's biggest disparities in rural areas of our state. I'm proud this pioneering work originated in New Mexico has become the national model for telehealth. I will continue working to ensure we find innovative ways to boost health care access for all New Mexicans.”

Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes) is a program started by the University of New Mexico (UNM) that has become a national model for providing remote communities access to high-quality health care resources. Project ECHO uses technology-enabled collaborative learning to support community providers and dramatically increases access to specialty treatment in remote and underserved areas.

Through Project ECHO, specialists provide direct care or consultation to patients via video conferencing. Under the ECHO model, specialists at a large medical center consult with primary care providers in rural or underserved communities on how best to treat complex conditions. This mentoring and training -- through teleECHO video conferencing clinics -- expands access to care, and research has shown that it is improving care.

The University of New Mexico School of Medicine’s Dr. Sanjeev Arora, M.D., Founder and Director of Project ECHO, said in a statement of support for the legislation: “Medical knowledge is exploding, but it’s often not traveling the last mile to ensure that patients get the right care in the right place at the right time. If we can leverage technology to spread best practices through case-based learning and mentoring of providers, we can move knowledge – instead of patients – to get better care to rural and underserved communities across the country.”

The ECHO Act aims to better integrate the Project ECHO model—referred to as a “technology-enabled collaborative learning and capacity-building model”—into health systems across the country. The bill does the following:

Requires the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in collaboration with the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), to prioritize analysis of the model, its impacts on provider capacity and workforce issues, and evidence of its effects on quality of patient care.

Requests a GAO report regarding opportunities for increased adoption of such models, efficiencies and potential cost savings from such models, ways to improve health care through such models, and field recommendations to advance the use of such models.

Requires the HHS Secretary to submit a report to Congress on the findings of the GAO report and the HHS report, including ways such models have been funded by HHS and how to integrate these models into current funding streams and innovative grant proposals.

The ECHO Act is sponsored by U.S. Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Learn more about Project ECHO at http://echo.unm.edu.