GRAND CHUTE – Wisconsin hospitals and community organizations will be able to apply for federal COVID relief funding to beef up telehealth services — video and phone consultations with doctors and nurses — as part of two new state grant programs.
Govt. Tony Evers announced the $5 million investment Wednesday at Partnership Community Health Center, which provides health care to low-income people in the Fox Cities.
The two grant programs, funded with American Rescue Plan Act dollars, are aimed at expanding access to mental health services for children and making telehealth appointments easier to access for people without reliable internet at home, Evers said.
Half of the money will be used to provide up to five health care provider systems with one-year grants of about $500,000 to expand virtual psychiatry services for kids. The other half will give dozens of community organizations one-year grants of about $100,000 to establish telehealth access points in libraries, food pantries, community centers and homeless shelters.
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“We can ensure that folks can meet with a health care provider no matter where they live — that’s what telehealth does for us,” Evers said.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many providers to switch to telehealth to serve patients. At Partnership Community Health Center, chief development officer Trish Sarvela said its staff conducted close to 8,000 telehealth visits for medical, dental and behavioral health last year, compared to zero such visits before the pandemic.
But telehealth isn’t always easy to deliver in a state that struggles with broadband access — federal data show more than 20% of rural Wisconsinites don’t have reliable internet at home.
“I would assume that the grantees will be serving people that have limited or unaffordable (internet) access,” Evers said Wednesday.
Children’s mental health services are similarly at a premium in Wisconsin, even as needs grow. In the state’s latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted in 2019, nearly half of students reported experiencing anxiety and more than a quarter reported depression.
Still, 66 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties reported a psychiatrist shortage, according to the 2020 annual report from the state Office of Children’s Mental Health. Some of those providers may not even treat children, the report says.
“Particularly for kids, our system is broken,” Sarvela said Wednesday. “There are such long waiting lists and really not a lot of access.”
Sarvela said the Partnership Community Health Center is eager to apply for a grant to expand telehealth access that has been “very effective” for their patients. The money could bolster an existing program offering telehealth at COTS, a transitional shelter in Appleton for people experiencing homelessness, as well as adding programming for Appleton Area School District students struggling with mental health issues.
“We are on fire about this,” Sarvela said.
Applications for the grants are due May 6.
Contact reporter Madeline Heim at 920-996-7266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @madeline_heim.