SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The Indian Health Service has chosen a South Dakota-based health care system to provide telemedicine services to a network of 19 hospitals and clinics across the Great Plains in an effort to bolster the specialty care available to tribal members, some of whom currently have to travel long distances to receive it.

Indian Health Service Principal Deputy Director Mary Smith on Tuesday announced the $6.8 million contract awarded to Avera Health, whose providers will deliver medical services via video and other technology in several specialties, including emergency services, behavioral health, cardiology, wound care and nephrology. The move comes as some of the agency’s hospitals in South Dakota and Nebraska face intense scrutiny over quality-of-care deficiencies and fulfills one of the promises Smith made when she took over the agency in March.

“… IHS experience shows that telemedicine is an effective way to increase access to quality health care services in remote, hard-to-reach areas,” Smith said in a statement.

The IHS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for providing health care services to Native Americans across the country. But some of the agency’s hospitals, particularly those serving tribal members in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Iowa, have long struggled with a shortage of health care providers and substandard care. Access to specialty care is limited, too.

In South Dakota, for example, a cardiology patient in some instances is currently forced to travel more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) for care. And a shortage of providers was among the reasons why the agency decided to close the emergency room of its hospital on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation from early December until July.

Tribal leaders had repeatedly asked IHS to expand access to specialty care through telemedicine at its remote hospitals. The 19 facilities that will benefit through the contract announced Tuesday serve an estimated 130,000 tribal members.

“It will save money, it will save trips, I’m thinking it will even save lives,” said Willie Bear Shield, chairman of the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Health Board. “This is the first time I’ve heard good news on something that we’ve actually wanted to do all this time. They heard us. They listened to us.”

Avera Health currently provides telemedicine services to more than 250 locations in several states. Its expertise has previously been sought by NATO.

Deanna Larson, CEO of Avera eCare, said most of the contract funds will be used to cover the provision of care, as well as the equipment and technology needed to keep the IHS facilities connected to Avera’s network. She said the health system’s goal is to connect the emergency rooms to the network “as quickly as possible.”


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