VA Hospital pilots the nation's first Virtual Living Room in Jackson County

Providing telehealth services is eliminating the burden of travel that so many veterans face commuting to and from Lexington
— Keith Gabbard
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McKEE Ky. – The home of the nation’s first Virtual Living Room Telehealth Center is in Appalachia Kentucky.

A partnership between Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative (PRTC), a Blueprint Partner of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR), the Jackson County Public Library, NTCA (The Rural Broadband Association), and the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital in Lexington, Ky. is eliminating burdens for veterans to receive quality healthcare.

The idea of the Virtual Living Room (VLR) grew from a White House Rural Telehealth Summit where PRTC CEO Keith Gabbard was selected as one of two rural telephone executives to speak at the event.  It was Gabbard’s second visit to the White House.  He was there in 2014 when PRTC received the Smart Rural Community designation from the NTCA.

“Providing telehealth services is eliminating the burden of travel that so many veterans face commuting to and from Lexington,” said Gabbard. “Many times, these ideas get caught up in various business models for participating organizations. That was not the case here. We wanted to provide the service and our public library graciously offered the space.”

It’s a win-win for everyone involved, said Malta Flannery, director of the Jackson County Public Library.

“Libraries, especially those in rural communities, serve a more meaningful role in communities they serve,” said Flannery. “That was the case here. We wanted to be a part of this because it is beneficial to our community and the veterans in our communities who have defended and protected our freedoms.”

The VLR, which opened in October 2017, is a pilot project which allows veterans to connect with health care professionals at the VA Medical Center in Lexington, Ky. through telehealth and telemedicine approaches.  The creation of the VLR, which has a couch, chair, end tables, coffee table, and other furnishings was provided through a grant by the NTCA.

Through the collaborative approach of PRTC, Jackson County and Owsley counties were the first gigabit counties in Kentucky.  This began in 2008-2009 when the company utilized a $20 million loan from the USDA Rural Utility Service, a $25 million grant and loan from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), and $5 million in capital funding to spread 1,000 miles of fiber in Jackson and Owsley counties.  This resulted in a $50 million investment in the digital infrastructure of the two counties.  PRTC serves more than 18,000 customers in Jackson and Owsley counties and are expanding services to portions of Clay and Lee counties.

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“We are using connectivity to build a brighter future,” said Gabbard. “We don’t have a hospital or a college, but what we have is something the world wants: connectivity and a motivated workforce.”

PRTC, through Gabbard’s leadership, partnered with SOAR Grassroots Partner the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP), Teleworks USA, and Jackson Energy to open Teleworks Hubs in Annville (Jackson County) in 2015 and Booneville (Owsley County) in 2016.  The hubs have created more than 550 jobs to date.

“Those jobs would not be here without the connectivity we have,” Gabbard added. “We are bringing jobs to our community through the power of connectivity and collaboration. That’s what it is all about.”

Gabbard is optimistic that connectivity will open more doors when it comes to telehealth and telemedicine.

“The Virtual Living Room is a great start,” said Gabbard. “When people work together for the common good of people, real change happens.”

To learn more about PRTC, visit www.prtcnet.org.  To learn more about SOAR’s Blueprint Partnership program and how you can join, visit www.soar-ky.org/partner.  The program is open to businesses, organizations, and individuals who are committed to building a 21st Century Appalachia. Together.