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Indian Health Service awards large contract in Great Plains Area






The Indian Health Service offers telemedecine services, including this ophthalmology program, to patients throughout Indian Country. Photo from IHS

The Indian Health Service has awarded a large contract aimed at boosting telemedicine efforts in the Great Plains Area.

Under the contract, Avera Health will provide telehealth services to IHS facilities in Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, the agency announced on Tuesday. The agreement runs for one year, at a cost of $6.8 million, but it can be extended for up to five years at a total cost of $100 million.

"This contract is beneficial to IHS patients because it connects Avera Health’s medical experts to American Indian communities as part of a major IHS initiative to improve access to quality care at hospitals, health centers and other facilities in the Great Plains," Mary L. Smith, the top official at the agency, said in a press release.

Avera Health is a regional health system based in South Dakota. It operates more than 100 locations throughout South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Tribal leaders from the Great Plains had mentioned Avera Health as a possible partner as they pressed the IHS to address the quality of care in the region. They said telehealth offered one way to fix long-standing problems in the system.

"The use of telehealth technology could be a powerful tool in addressing some of our most pressing concerns related to the prohibitive cost and other burdens of patient travel, as well as the misdiagnosis and improper treatment," Sonia Little Hawk-Weston, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said in testimony to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February.

"Telehealth would provide access to experts while saving unnecessary patient travel costs to Rapid City and elsewhere," Little Hawk-Weston added, citing the long distances between the Pine Ridge Reservation and facilities that provide services that aren't offered locally by the IHS.

At the same time, Little Hawk-Weston noted that the Pine Ridge Hospital is not fully capable of supporting the technological needs of a telehealth system. Only about half of the facility is wired, she said.

According to the IHS, the Great Plains appears to have fallen behind in terms of telehealth. Only 10 sites in the region -- nine in South Dakota and one in Nebraska -- participate in the IHS-Joslin Vision Network Teleophthalmology Program, which is designed to prevent diabetes-related blindness among tribal members.

In comparison, the program is available at 19 sites in Arizona and 10 sites in Oklahoma alone, according to a document presented to Great Plains tribes earlier this year.

The IHS Telebehavioral Health Center of Excellence is only offered at six sites in the Great Plains, five in South Dakota and one in North Dakota, according to the document. This program is smaller, overall, in comparison to the IHS-Joslin Vision Network.

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