- On the tails of HHS Secretary Tom Price’s confirmation, a group of senators have sent him a letter urging him to advocate for better patient care access in rural areas.
The group of 41 senators, led by Roger Wicker (R-Miss), Jon Tester (D-Mont), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), reiterated that expansive government regulations affect rural areas more than other regions, and often prohibit patients from getting access to the care that they need.
“As you take on this new leadership role at HHS, we request that you work with us to ensure that the federal government does not act as an impediment to providing health care in rural communities,” the senators wrote.
“Overreaching and onerous regulations from Washington disproportionately harm rural America,” they continued. “We believe that together we can enact and implement effective policies that help providers innovate in care delivery and enable them to make efficient use of available resources.”
Nearly 20 percent of the population lives outside of urban areas, leaving them miles away from a healthcare facility. In order to help fill in gaps in care, the senators advocated for emerging health technologies that connect disparately located patients and providers.
“We are encouraged by innovations we have seen in our states as providers test new care models and technologies like telehealth and remote patient monitoring,” they said.
“We know you will find bipartisan interest in supporting these types of innovations, and we look forward to working with you to improve our health-care system. We recognize the importance of tackling this issue in a fiscally responsible way but believe investments in rural America yield substantial returns on investment.”
According to Wicker, it will be important for Price and HHS to connect with representatives from rural areas to ensure further health IT regulations will take these regions into account.
“Technology and innovation have allowed for better access to health care, but there are still vulnerable areas where quality, affordable care is lacking,” he said. “I look forward to working with Secretary Price and the new Administration to ensure that rural America has a seat at the table as we move forward with improving the nation’s health-care system.”
Patients living in rural areas are demanding improve healthcare services, said Tester and Heitkamp, stating that something as simple as accessing primary care is onerous due to their unique regional barriers.
“I’ve been traveling across Montana to hear from folks about the challenges facing health care in rural America,” said Tester. “One thing is abundantly clear: families want certainty about their future, and they want Congress and the new administration to make responsible decisions to ensure access to quality, affordable health care—especially in rural states like Montana.”
“Every North Dakotan – no matter how rural or remote their hometown – deserves access to quality health services,” Heitkamp added. “Now that Mr. Price is secretary, I’m committed to working with him to make sure he fully understands the health care needs and challenges in rural communities and that he makes them a priority. Every day I come to the US Senate fighting for rural America, and that includes making sure rural communities get access to care.”
According to the senators, 90 percent of the country is rural, meaning that its inhabitants face significant geographic barriers to accessing treatment at any healthcare facility.
And due to financial restrictions, nearly 80 rural healthcare facilities have closed in recent years, and nearly 700 other facilities are also at risk of closure. This makes it even more difficult for patients to access the care they need.
The government has made some efforts to help mediate the problem. In June, the Senate passed South Dakota Senator John Thune’s Rural Healthcare Connectivity Act of 2016, which allowed skilled nursing facilities to apply for funding for better telehealth support.
And late last month, Congress began hearing a new bill geared toward improving pharmacy access for medically underserved seniors on Medicare Part B. This bill would reimburse pharmacists for delivering basic healthcare services, recognizing them as healthcare providers.
As patients in rural and medically underserved areas continue to face barriers to accessing care, healthcare professionals and policymakers alike should consider bipartisan solutions to help patients access the care that they need.