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Program to Ensure Rural Access to Health Care Receives Federal Funding Boost

Longstanding University of Arizona Health Sciences program provides technical assistance, training and expertise to Arizona’s 15 critical access hospitals and 31 rural health clinics and EMS providers.

A program under the Center for Rural Health at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, that ensures Arizona’s rural communities have access to high-quality health services has received a $3.5 million, five-year grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to continue its vital efforts in medically underserved areas of the state.

The Arizona Medicare Rural Hospital Flexibility Program (AzFlex) is the premier technical assistance training and information resource for patients served by Arizona’s 15 federally designated critical access hospitals and its 31 rural health clinics and trauma and emergency medical service providers.

“Rural hospitals and clinics face many serious ongoing threats to their capacity to serve patients. This includes potential closure, as well as the opioid epidemic, medical and surgical capacity and workforce shortages, among many other complex challenges,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins, MD. “The Arizona Medicare Rural Hospital Flexibility Program is a perfect example of how the University of Arizona Health Sciences is directly assisting our state’s medically underserved communities with hands-on support. The University of Arizona Center for Rural Health is ideally suited to carry out this important work, and I know we will see many positive outcomes in the months and years ahead.”

Critical Access Hospitals must have less than 25 inpatient beds, must be 35 miles or more from another facility, must staff a 24/7 emergency department and maintain acute-care status by averaging less than 96 hours for an inpatient stay. 

“Arizona’s critical access hospitals and rural health clinics play crucial roles in assuring access to quality health care, improving population health outcomes and contributing to a community’s overall economic health and development,” said Principal Investigator Daniel Derksen, MD, associate vice president for health equity, outreach and interprofessional activities at the UA Health Sciences and director of the UA Center for Rural Health at the UA Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, which administers the program. 

Established in 1999, AzFlex offers support and technical assistance to critical access hospitals in core areas, including:

  • Performance and quality improvement
  • Operational and financial improvement
  • Population health management and emergency medical services integration

The new five-year HRSA award will allow the program to expand its longstanding relationship with the hospitals, clinics and the Arizona Bureau of Emergency Medical Services and Trauma System, as well as the UA Health Sciences-based Arizona Telemedicine Program, the Arizona Department of Health Services and Health Current, Arizona’s health information exchange.

In related news, the Center for Rural Health also was one of only eight recipients in the nation to receive a three-year, $750,000 supplement to its HRSA Rural Hospital Flexibility Program award for its project, “Arizona Rural EMS Advanced Telemedicine Demonstration Initiative (AzREADI).” The project aims to implement a telemedicine system that two rural EMS agencies will use for two-way video communication with urban, board-certified emergency medicine physicians to evaluate reduced cost and unnecessary EMS transports and measure patient and provider satisfaction.

Dr. Derksen’s co-investigators on this supplemental project are: Ronald Weinstein, MD, founding director, Arizona Telemedicine Program; Daniel Spaite, MD, professor and the Virginia Piper Distinguished Chair of Emergency Medicine, UA Department of Emergency Medicine; Amber Rice, MD, assistant professor, UA Department of Emergency Medicine; and Josh Gaither, MD, associate professor and EMS Fellowship director, UA Department of Emergency Medicine. They will work with the AzFlex staff, the Rio Rico Fire and Medical District and the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District to conduct the project.

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