USDA provides $43 million in funding for rural medicine and education
… New funding from the USDA for rural healthcare and education is a step in the right direction …

USDA Invests $42 Million In Rural America For Healthcare And Education Technology


Funding is welcome but more is needed to reverse the issues in rural healthcare and academics

John G. Baresky

The USDA has announced it is funding 86 projects through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant program. It helps rural healthcare organizations and rural educators improve their connections with and better support their patients or students. The new flow of monies is largely attributed to new demands and issues triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

To stay viable, rural communities require significant technology investment to support medicine, academics and business

The healthcare, education and commerce elements of rural America were already experiencing significant issues and disadvantages before the emergence of the coronavirus in the United States.

Numerous rural hospitals and other medical care provider organizations have closed at a record pace due to staffing, reimbursement and technology issues. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation for rural medical professionals and healthcare provider organizations as critical access hospitals and other local clinics become overwhelmed with patients.

Their challenges reverberate back and forth as they are shared with their rural education and farming community business counterparts.

Internet technology is important for family and commercial farms

The new USDA funding is widely distributed

The 86 projects that are receiving money are based in numerous areas of the country. This reflects the widespread impact COVID-19 has had even in the farthest reaches of rural America and remote areas. This is the list of states and territories where the organizations that received the funding are located:

  • Alabama
  • Alaska
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Guam
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Puerto Rico
  • Samoa
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Virgin Islands
  • West Virginia

Technology can reduce COVID-19’s impact on farmers, their families and local towns

New technology is a pivotal resource to help farmers and other persons living in rural communities deal with COVID-19’s ongoing impact now and in the future as the pandemic hopefully subsides soon. Technology is not just a gap-filler during the pandemic; it is a bridge-builder and foundation for success now and in the future. These are three examples of how the funding and the technology it provides are being deployed in rural areas:

  • The Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta Georgia is using their $997,194 in funding to purchase interactive telecommunications, distance learning and telemedicine equipment for service hubs in two counties in west-central Georgia. These service hubs are the pivotal resource in providing healthcare to residents in underserved rural areas of nine counties across the state. Morehouse will deploy the technology to support care for chronic disease diagnosis, treatment and management (including COVID-19), behavioral health and substance abuse services, clinical functions, specialty care referral management and health education
  • More than an hour away from Concord, New Hampshire, the Fall Mountain Regional School District in Langdon (population 690) is using $995,158 to provide distance learning services across 2 counties. Their schools will be able to more productively collaborate and share instructional resources that enable students, faculty and administration to better communicate via digital venues.
  • The Okmulgee Oklahoma Public School District is located about an hour’s drive south of Tulsa. Okmulgee’s population is 11,846. It has been issued $756,760 in funding to provide distance learning services in 2 counties. Schools will be able to increase academic offerings plus use videoconferencing and interactive display panels to expand the curriculum, including Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses.
Critical access hospitals, rural hospitals and rural health clinics depend on quality Internet service to support telehealth / telehealth for patient care

The FCC Broadband Benefit signifies further awareness in Washington of the broadband Internet access issue

The Emergency Broadband Benefit allocates $3.2 billion in funding to shore up Internet access across the nation. It will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands.

Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.

This is a sizable program and addresses national needs not those of farmers and rural communities. It presumes that quality broadband Internet access is available for persons to subscribe to and use their devices to access it.

Washington needs to develop and execute a technology plan for healthcare, education and business in rural America

The money issued by the USDA is greatly appreciated and needed by the citizens, organizations and rural communities that received it. The funding is estimated to help approximately 5 million people, however; about 20% of the U.S. population (60 million individuals) live in rural America and tribal areas according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As of late 2019, the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Broadband Deployment Report estimates that 21.3 million Americans (about 6.5 percent of the population) lack access to broadband internet (including wired and fixed wireless connections) of any kind.

More than half of the $43 million ($24 million) was sourced from the Cares Act which originated in 2020. Furthermore, when $43 million is divided by 86, it averages out to approximately $488,000 per project. This could be a generous sum for one venture but falls short of making a meaningful difference across rural America:

  • Telemedicine/telehealth, remote patient monitoring, clinical data sharing and billing, insurance eligibility and reimbursement systems for rural health provider organizations demand reliable Internet access
  • Rural schools must have quality broadband service to consistently orchestrate the classroom experience for their students and facilitate the effective sharing of academic resources and learning dialogue
  • Farmers and rural businesses depend on consistent Internet service for an array of data needs like weather, atmospheric and soil conditions, commodity reports, ordering of supplies, e-commerce and other purposes
Farmers rely on data-driven resources to be more productive

Continuity in financial, technology and regulatory support is vital to rural America’s success

Previous administrations have taken assertive steps to address medical, academic and commercial challenges in farming communities and remote areas. These include the Obama administration’s Rural Healthcare Council Initiative and the Trump administration's Rural Action Plan. These provided help but these measures need to be sustained especially in light of the new and devastating problems that the pandemic has caused.

The new administration in Washington has made significant commitments in “The Biden-Harris Plan To Build Back Better In Rural America” to help farmers, their families and nearby communities. One of the most important ones is the promise to provide $20 billion in funding dedicated to the improvement of broadband service in rural areas.

Quality broadband access improves farm production, rural education and commerce in U.S. agricultural communities

A $20 billion investment in rural broadband service would make a difference to help family and commercial farms operate better and provide the necessary technology infrastructure for rural schools and businesses to perform at a higher level. Once a uniform baseline of reliable, high-performing Internet access is established, rural stakeholders will have more options to choose from that suit their specific business, education and healthcare needs.

The practical and inspiring projects in Georgia, Oklahoma and New Hampshire are prime examples of how technology can have a meaningful impact at the local level in rural communities. Looking ahead, the pragmatic ingenuity and dedication that drives those initiatives need to be magnified. $20 billion in rural broadband funding can significantly build on their success.

Find out more about the challenges, opportunities and funding resources for rural America

Learn more about rural America’s issues as well as the personal and professional rewards it offers. Contact the United States Department of Agriculture Office Of Rural Development headquarters in Washington, D.C. or a USDA Rural Development state office.

Biden-Harris Promised $20 Billion To Improve Rural Broadband Access

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