Rural residents often face obstacles in finding health care resources. Many access mental health care via their primary care providers rather than behavioral health clinicians.
A new bipartisan bill, titled the Home-Based Telemental Health Care Act, aims to increase rural residents’ access to virtual mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) treatment services by authorizing up to $10 million in annual grants through 2027.
Rural communities face many health disparities compared to urban people, including higher rates of opioid overdoses and suicide, creating a significant need for increased access to behavioral health services and presenting opportunities for providers to expand services.
US Representatives Andrea Salinas (D-Ore) and Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.) introduced the bill, which also seeks to increase behavioral health services for people who work in farming, fishing and forestry occupations as well as those who live in rural communities.
People who work in these industries have the fourth-highest suicide rates of any industry, with 36 males per 100,000 dying by suicide, according to the CDC.
“Seeking access to mental health and substance abuse services often entails a long and arduous journey for rural patients,” Harshbarger said in a statement. “Our common-sense bill will allow patients to receive the critical care they need from the comfort of their own home, and improve patient outcomes for individuals residing in rural areas throughout the country.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would work with the Department of Agriculture to award annual grants to deliver behavioral telehealth services and develop metrics to compare the quality and impact of telehealth appointments versus in-person visits.
Several studies have shown telehealth appointments are as effective as in-person services, although little research has been done to analyze telehealth efficacy of different patient demographic groups.
The legislation is endorsed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Rural Health Association and the American Psychological Association.
“This important legislation creates a telemental health demonstration program designed to address specific behavioral health and substance use needs for folks in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations,” Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association, said in a statement. “This bill will increase access to behavioral health and substance use services for our most rural and medically underserved populations.”