June 24, 2018
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Connecting the distance in the country’s most rural state

By Dallas Tonsager, Special to the BDN

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Maine to announce and tour energy, distance learning, telemedicine and community facilities projects that U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development has funded.

As under secretary for USDA Rural Development, it is rewarding to see the direct effect our funding has on communities both in Maine and throughout the country.

In the past three years, the department has implemented President Barack Obama’s vision for an American economy that is built to last: An economy built on American manufacturing, American energy and skills for American workers.

USDA has made historic investments in rural housing, rural businesses and critical rural infrastructure, such as fire and police stations, libraries, health clinics, water and wastewater systems and rural broadband networks that can facilitate distance learning and telemedicine opportunities.

USDA Rural Development’s Distance Learning and Telemedicine, or DLT, program supplies an excellent source of capital to finance technology that effectively eliminates the barriers of time and distance facing rural communities who want access to the same educational and health care opportunities that many Americans take for granted.

Too often, rural residents have to drive hundreds of miles to access quality health care or education.

Through our DLT program, we provide funding to organizations on a competitive basis, enabling these critical medical and education services that would otherwise be unavailable in remote rural areas of the country. Organizations here in Maine have worked hard to leverage cutting-edge technology that provides health care and educational resources to their rural residents.

As a result, Maine has led the nation for five out of the last six years in the amount of DLT funding it has received through USDA. Since 2009, Rural Development has invested $11 million in Maine for distance learning and telemedicine.

The benefits of the DLT program are substantial and far reaching. While I was in Maine, for example, I announced a DLT grant for $499,967 to Regional School Unit 24 in Ellsworth. The funds will be used to purchase distance learning equipment that engages students in five counties in Maine and two counties in Vermont.

Adult learners and school-age children will participate in the comprehensive educational network, which will include medical courses for health care and non-health care students that will benefit 11,000 rural residents of Maine and Vermont.

In addition, we awarded $309,619 in Rural Development DLT funds that will be invested in Central Maine Healthcare Corporation in Lewiston to purchase video conferencing and related equipment for a telemedicine project that covers five counties in western, central and coastal Maine.

I also had the opportunity to witness the benefit of this technology firsthand. We were able to connect remotely through DLT advanced technology at Eastern Maine Medical Center to announce a $6.7 million Community Facilities Guaranteed Loan to Northern Maine Medical

Center — 193 miles away in Fort Kent.

Time and distance normally would have precluded me from being able to make this important announcement, but through the DLT technology, I was pleased to be able to announce funding for the hospital to convert to a wood chip biomass boiler system, replacing three oil-fired boilers that are 50 years old.

While at Eastern Maine Medical Center, I was updated on a $50,000 DLT grant to enable Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems to provide elderly, chronically ill and coastal populations of Hancock County in eastern Maine with state-of-the-art telemonitoring homecare. More than $1.98 million has been invested in Eastern Maine Medical Center and Eastern Maine Health Care in the past decade.

These investments, made possible by the Obama Administration, represent some very important technological advances for rural Maine. We need to continue to work together to give Maine students and citizens the world-class educational opportunities that they deserve, and we need to ensure that they have access to quality health care to allow the state’s rural communities to thrive.

The Obama Administration is committed to these investments, and we at USDA Rural Development are proud to partner with Maine organizations to bring these opportunities to rural Maine.

Dallas Tonsager is under secretary for USDA Rural Development. He oversees a $170 billion portfolio of business, housing and infrastructure loans. Before joining USDA, he served on the Board of Directors of the Farm Credit Administration, overseeing the Farm Credit System in the U.S., and he was involved in the family diversified farm operations in South Dakota.

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