New federal grants to help train rural doctors to fight addiction

The Obama administration is committing $9 million to rural health officials in three states that are testing the waters of telemedicine as they try to stem the rising tide of overdose deaths.   

The latest set of federal grants, which was announced at a meeting of the National Governors Association, will go to Oklahoma, Colorado and Pennsylvania over the next three years.

All three states have committed to using a telemedicine-style training program to help expand treatment in areas that have been historically underserved by healthcare providers.

States will use a model called Project ECHO, in which rural primary care doctors watch videos by urban speciality doctors who are trained in complex health problems like opioid addiction.

The Project ECHO approach, which was developed by the University of New Mexico, became widely touted after its use to help primary care doctors treat hepatitis C.

A recent study published in the journal Substance Abuse found that the model is a strong tool to help expand anti-addiction treatment "particularly in underserved areas."

In Pennsylvania, the state health department will use the money to help double the number of primary care doctors who prescribe addiction medication in 23 rural counties around Pittsburgh.

While the new initiatives make up a small fraction of annual government health grants, many state health officials say they are desperate for any new funding.   

The grants from the Department of Health and Human Services come just days after President Obama and congressional Democrats condemned GOP lawmakers for approving a landmark opioid package without any new treatment funding.

Democrats had demanded nearly $1 billion in emergency spending, which could be used immediately, without waiting for a government appropriations bill this fall.

Most Republicans, however, argued that any new government spending should go through the regular budgetary process. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a longtime anti-addiction advocate, has set aside more than $500 million in an upcoming spending bill.