BOARDMAN — The Columbia River Health Center in Boardman had a problem.

To lower the spread of COVID-19, health providers across the nation were starting to see patients virtually whenever possible. Treating patients via video provides a way to examine and diagnose from afar, keeping patients and health care providers safer.

The Boardman clinic had been moving toward telemedicine but wasn’t ready to jump in. Suddenly, however, the need became urgent.

“We weren’t ready to do that,” said Executive Director David Ayala. “We didn’t have the technology and now we had to put it together in a week.”

Then, some good news arrived in Ayala’s inbox from the Health Resources and Services Administration. A several-page document notified him that $55,087 in funding provided by the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations (CARES) Act was available.

This was a grant with a twist. No grant application was needed and the clinic hadn’t applied for one. Rather, the federal grantor decided after crunching data about HRSA-funded clinics. All the clinic had to do was agree to use the funds as intended and send periodic reports.

Columbia River Health ultimately received two awards. The largest — $600,230 — is part of $12.4 million in federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) grants from the CARES Act to help clinics statewide to provide care for Oregonians during challenges posed by this public health crisis. The act provides $8.3 billion in emergency funding for federal agencies to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, including the $100 million for Health Resources and Services Administration-funded health centers across the nation.

Similar grants went to front-line health care providers in Fossil, Hillsboro, Wheeler, Portland, Boardman, Bandon, Klamath Falls, Enterprise, Roseburg, Salem and Medford and to programs run by Lincoln County, Multnomah County, Tillamook County, and Benton County.

The Boardman clinic also received a $55,087 award as part of $1.9 million divided between 30 Oregon health centers funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration. The funding is meant to help the health centers respond to the pandemic.

After receiving notification first of the smaller grant, Ayala listened to a webinar which explained that the funds must be used only to prevent, prepare for and treat coronavirus. The second grant, he said, appears to overlap with the first one though he doesn’t yet have all the details.

The clinic will invest a chunk of the funds in microphones, iPads, laptops, cell phones and other technology needed for telehealth encounters.

Ayala said, before COVID-19, one downside to increasing virtual visits was a decrease in revenue.

“With a face-to-face encounter, insurance pays a certain rate,” he said. “With a virtual visit, payment is less. For a phone visit, it’s even less.”

He anticipates the clinic’s revenue dropping 30 or 40% for March and April. But, he said, efforts are being made to close the payment gap between virtual and face-to-face visits.

“The government understands this,” Ayala said. “They know the health care system wasn’t prepared for this.”

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