Cantwell Backs Bill to Connect Doctor’s Office to Living Room, Increase Access to High Quality Health Care in Rural America

ECHO Act would use technology to connect rural patients and providers, create innovative continuing medical education opportunities

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) signed on as a cosponsor for the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act, which will increase access to high-quality health care in rural America – where it can be difficult to access a specialist.

In 2008, Washington became one of the first states in the nation to implement the Project ECHO model.  The program has connected more than 1,000 rural and underserved hepatitis C patients with the specialist care they need, but do not have access to. 

“Your zip code should not determine your access to care,” said Cantwell. “New technology and new modeling, some of developed right here in Washington state, can ensure that patients in Central and Eastern Washington don’t have to travel to Seattle to see a specialist. When patients can get care in their community, we can lower costs and increase convenience.”

Project ECHO is an innovative continuing medical education model that uses interactive videoconferencing to link specialist teams in academic medical centers (“hubs”) with primary care providers (“spokes”) in rural and underserved areas. Together, they participate in weekly teleECHO clinics that combine teaching with mentoring and case-based learning. Through Project ECHO, physicians are able to share knowledge and coordinate the care of patients.

“We thank Senator Cantwell for her support of S. 2873, the Expanding Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act,” said Dr. Paul Ramsay, CEO of UW Medicine. “The bill will help expand Project ECHO as a national model for using telehealth for care for the underserved in both urban and rural areas.  Many rural and remote areas of Washington State will benefit from the training to primary care physicians and improved access for their patients to specialty knowledge.”

After its introduction to Washington state, the ECHO model was expanded to address a range of conditions including chronic pain and heart failure, as well as diseases like tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, and addiction. Project ECHO has made especially significant progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS in rural and tribal communities.

The American Medical Association, the National Association of Community Health Centers, and National Rural Health Association have all endorsed the ECHO Act.

Benefits of Project ECHO model for:

  • Patients: Improved access to quality and accessible care, with high-patient satisfaction
  • Providers: Increased knowledge for providers in rural/underserved areas, with ability to serve as a local resource; improved provider network; enhanced professional satisfaction and reduced isolation; more access to specialists.
  • Health care system: Higher retention of providers in rural/underserved areas; better care delivered in the right place at the right time by the right person; decreased costs (less travel for specialty visits, less hospitalizations and ER visits, better quality of care close to home, and treatment of chronic diseases earlier before complications arise).
  • Current health care challenges: Project ECHO has successfully been used to increase the number of physicians able to prescribe buprenorphine for opioid abuse, to quickly educate health providers on public health crises such as H1N1, and to train providers to address complex mental health disorders.

The Enhancing Capacity for Health Outcomes (ECHO) Act:

  • 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.

Senator Cantwell’s commitment to improving rural healthcare stretches back almost fifteen years.  She cosponsored the Rural Health Innovation Act of 2001, which sought to erase inequities in the Medicare system for rural providers and standardize reimbursement amounts for all providers, whether urban or rural. Last year, Cantwell helped pass legislation ensuring that rural Medicare beneficiaries continue to access services like blood draws and blood transfusions at their local hospitals.

Most recently, Cantwell introduced a bipartisan bill, the Rural ACO Improvement Act, to promote access to coordinated, patient-focused health care in rural and underserved areas.