The U.S. Department of Agriculture is giving $489,085 to Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia to help it expand a program that makes the services of specialists available in rural areas.

Georgia Blue, Atlanta, a unit of WellPoint Inc., Indianapolis, will be using the money to add videoconferencing systems and other telemedicine systems at 3 more patient “telemedicine sites,” increasing the total number of telemedicine sites to 51.

Georgia Blue also will be increasing the number of specialist sites to 94, from 89, and adding 2 teleradiology sites that patients can use to get distant radiologists to look at the results from X-rays and other medical imaging procedures.

Georgia Blue says its telemedicine program has had about 900 patient encounters since it began in March 2005.

Georgia Blue and Georgia insurance regulators started the telemedicine program in an effort to help residents of rural Georgia get the same kinds of specialist services found in cities such as Atlanta.