Every parent knows the sinking feeling that hits when your child drops from the monkey bars or when a grandparent can’t get up from a fall. For families in rural areas, that sense of worry is immediately followed by the risk of not getting medical care in time.
Through phone calls with friends and virtual meetings, I hear from Tennesseans in rural areas who were struggling to access health care even before the pandemic. It’s a grim reality that many Americans have to drive hours through remote areas to find emergency medical care. If they make it in time, they find overcrowded facilities filled with the COVID-19 patients urban hospitals are funneling into rural areas.
The rural health care crisis is not only anecdotal. For those who live in rural areas, the average distance to care has increased more than 600 percent in the past eight years, according to a December 2020 report from the United States Government Accountability Office.
In Tennessee, that increase is the result of rapid, statewide hospital closures. In the past seven years alone, 12 hospitals that reached underserved communities shut their doors. That’s a staggering number of closures considering the state of Tennessee only has about that same number of Critical Access Hospitals remaining.
While the status of rural health care already looks bleak, the problem is worsening with the lingering pandemic. Rural areas receive less access to the testing and vaccination programs that are getting urban areas back to work and attract fewer doctors and nurses to practice in the community after they complete their training.
Families living in rural Tennessee need a solution. As the U.S. Senate Rural Health Caucus co-chair, I am uniquely positioned to lead the charge. Last week, I rolled out a multi-part health care agenda to ensure rural areas can gain access to the health care they deserve.
As part of this agenda, I introduced legislation that incentivizes doctors to live and work in their local community instead of moving to a larger city. The bipartisan legislative plan also returns fair Medicare funding to rural communities and includes a proposal to work with the White House on prioritizing rural health care advocacy alongside the attorney general and Department of Health and Human Services.
While my work on Capitol Hill has brought the concerns of rural Americans into the legislative conversation, I know that our mission is far from over. Tennessee’s doctors, nurses, and scientists are working tirelessly to manage COVID’s impact on rural health, but our hospitals and health care facilities are still overwhelmed.
As we enter a new phase of coronavirus recovery, parents will still worry when medical emergencies happen. But, I remain dedicated to championing the demand for rural health care and hopeful that comparable access can become a reality.