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Rural libraries in Idaho get a helping hand to offer telehealth

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Rural libraries in Idaho now have a new way to offer telehealth services to their communities.

The collaboration between the Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is using $500,000 in federal COVID relief money to buy telehealth equipment for libraries in remote corners of the state.

That includes covering the cost of soundproof privacy booths, laptops and microphones.

Idaho has a shortage of both medical and mental health providers – even in its urban areas at times. The problem is exacerbated in rural communities, which also suffer from a lack of available broadband internet service.

Amelia Valasek, program supervisor for the commission, said libraries can serve as a great centralized location for telehealth appointments while protecting people’s privacy.

“When you’re in a small town, people know what your car looks like,” said Valasek. “So, when you’re parked in front of the public library, they don’t know why you’re there. You could be there for any number of reasons.”

Libraries also typically already have some of the most reliable and fastest internet speeds in these communities, she said.

Applications for the initial funding round open Monday and are administered differently than most grants.

Because libraries are taxpayer funded, state agencies like IDHW can simply purchase this equipment for those entities without having to fill out lengthy applications. In fact, applicants only have to answer three short questions.

Rachel Masaitis helped develop the program with IDHW. She said making the process as headache-free as possible was important to accommodate libraries with limited staff.

“How do we expect them to be able to go through the process of purchasing the equipment and having it shipped to them and having someone come set them up,” Masaitis said.

Priority will be given to branches that serve communities with fewer than 50,000 people, which covers nearly all of Idaho's 104 public library systems, according to Valasek.

The Idaho Commission for Libraries has already worked on a similar initiative with a $40,000 grant from the Blue Cross Foundation.

Telehealth projects are established or in the works at branches in Caldwell, Challis, Hailey, Orofino, Parma, Weippe and Ada County’s Victory Branch.

The commission had planned an even more ambitious program using $3.5 million in federal money. But House Republicans, who unsuccessfully tried to criminalize librarians who lent “harmful materials” to minors earlier this year, ultimately cut that money from the budget.

Still, Valasek said she isn’t concerned about getting significant legislative blowback.

“Because this is such a high need and this thing has been in the works for a while,” she said.

“The project will probably speak for itself once it’s up and running.”

Applications for this initial round of grants are due Sept. 30. Projects will be selected in October, with equipment delivery expected by February 2023.

The agencies expect to offer several more rounds of grants in the coming months.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!