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Committee Holds Hearing on Department of Agriculture's DIstance Learning and Telemedicine Program

The House Committee on Agriculture today held a hearing to review the Department of Agriculture’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program.

The 1990 Farm Bill authorized the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program to provide grants to rural schools and health care providers. The 1996 Farm Bill reauthorized the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant Program and established a new loan component. The DLT helps rural schools and health care providers invest in telecommunications facilities and equipment to bring educational and medical resources that otherwise might be unavailable to rural areas.

“Funding for distance learning and telemedicine services are having a positive impact on many residents in our rural areas,” Chairman Goodlatte said. “In my state for example, these programs are providing students, teachers, parents and rural schools with many new opportunities, while also delivering high-quality health care services.”

Goodlatte continued, “This hearing provides the Committee with the opportunity to learn how we can improve the access, quality, and affordability of education and health care resources within the framework of the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program, from those who have first hand experience in these areas.”

The Committee heard from two panels of witnesses. The first featured Tom Dorr, Under Secretary for Rural Development, United States Department of Agriculture. He was accompanied by Hilda Legg, Administrator at Rural Utilities Service.

“Given the demographics and trends in rural population, health care for elderly rural residents is becoming more urgent but, unfortunately, is less available in sparsely populated areas due to its high delivery cost and the lack of medical professionals” said Ranking Member Charlie Stenholm. “There are 56 million rural residents nationwide that have unique needs, some of which can be addressed by the Distance Learning/Telemedicine Program, and we can’t hesitate to explore every possible option for these people.”

The second panel included Karen S. Rheuban, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, Medical Director,

Office of Telemedicine and Associate Dean for External Affairs, University of Virginia Health System, Mr. Howard Chapman, Executive Director, Saltville Medical Center, Saltville, Virginia,

Mr. George S. O’Brien, Superintendent, Copenhagen Central School District,

Copenhagen, New York, Dr. Patti Patterson, Vice President for Rural and Community Health, Texas Tech University Health Science Center, Lubbock, Texas and Mr. Carl Taylor, Assistant Dean and Director, Office of Emerging Health Technologies, University of South Alabama College of Medicine, Mobile, Alabama.

Testifying before the Committee, Dr. Rheuban commented, “Congress has an opportunity to greatly enhance the viability and sustainability of our nation’s telemedicine programs, thereby increasing access to locally unavailable quality healthcare services that reduce rural-urban disparities…”

In his written testimony, Mr. Chapman said, “Further expansion of the use of the telemedicine program would be my recommendation to improve the system. It puts services in remote rural areas that lack resources to support a full-time provider. It provides direct treatment and education to the patients we serve that they could not afford…”

The hearing included a live telemedicine and distance learning demonstration.