What rural areas need from health care reform
Previous efforts at health care reform show us that rural areas are uniquely vulnerable. Efforts need to take account not only of coverage and access – as has been the focus of the current debate – but also how reform affects rural health care institutions and the larger social factors shaping overall health.
The particular economic factors affecting rural health care institutions make rural areas particularly vulnerable to political shifts that disrupt services for existing patients and for those newly insured, creating immense challenges for rural providers. Steps that fail to account for the impact of financial hardship on these institutions not only hurt their bottom line but contribute to poor morale and workforce turnover and larger-scale decisions to reduce services, which decrease their ability to address patient needs.
At the same time, commitment to improving the health of rural Americans requires attention to the so-called upstream factors shaping rural health. That means preserving the safety net programs so vital in rural areas with underemployment and low-paying jobs, strengthening rural economies and investing in high-quality education.
If our leaders are serious about reform that will lessen the rural-urban mortality gap, they should recognize the unique needs of rural America and ensure health care policy reflects how vital access to quality care is to their financial success – not to mention their well-being.