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U.S. senators aim to expand mental health services in rural America

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and U.S. senators are taking this opportunity to highlight the need for mental health services in rural America. U.S. Sens. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) led a bipartisan group of senators in reintroducing legislation to expand telemental health services in rural areas. The Home-Based Telemental Health Care Act would establish a grant program for health providers to expand telemental health services for those specifically in rural populations working in farming, forestry and fishing industries. 

“Those living in rural areas may live far away from a mental health facility, making in-person visits difficult for those seeking care,” said Rounds. “Utilizing telemental health capabilities will allow South Dakotans in rural areas to receive quality care from the comfort of their homes. Not only does this save time and resources, it provides an important mental health service during a difficult period for our farmers and ranchers, who for years have suffered economically due to challenging weather, trade disputes and price disparities.”

This legislation would direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services, acting through the Director of the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth of the Health Resources and Services Administration, in coordination with the Rural Health Liaison of the Department of Agriculture, to award grants to entities to establish demonstration projects for the provision of telemental health services for rural populations, specifically those working in the farming, fishing and forestry occupations. It would authorize up to $10 million for each fiscal year through 2026, using current funds.

“Now — especially as our nation continues dealing with a pandemic — we need to help rural America overcome the unique obstacles that small towns and rural communities face in providing mental health,” said Smith. “Our bipartisan bill will help health providers in rural areas expand tele-mental health care services for farmers, ranchers and foresters, and many others in local communities who are experiencing stress and burnout caused by the pandemic, difficult weather, low commodity prices and more. It’s important that they get the services they need during this uncertain time.”

“Farmers across the state are suffering from drought, labor shortages and price disparities,” said Scott VanderWal, President of the South Dakota Farm Bureau. “The demands of farming, especially during this time of the year, make it difficult for farmers to seek care. The Home-Based Telemental Health Care Act works to provide farmers in rural communities with accessible, quality mental health services. I thank Senators Rounds and Smith for their leadership in addressing the well-being of our rural communities.”

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