Strengthening Access To Rural Health Care

March 26, 2023

50% of hospitals closing soon – help wanted. No, that’s not just a dismal statement you might find plastered across a billboard along I-40. It’s a grim reality in the Volunteer State, especially for the 1 in 5 Tennesseans living in rural and other underserved areas. 

Every day, I hear from Tennesseans who lack the access to health care that many city and suburban dwellers take for granted. Some are forced to drive miles upon miles to find emergency care. Others wait half a day just to see a doctor. 

This problem isn’t unique to Tennessee. A recent study found that “[m]ore than 600 rural hospitals – nearly 30% of all rural hospitals in the country – are at risk of closing in the near future.” 

These numbers – and the real-world experiences of thousands of Tennesseans – make it clear: addressing the rural health care crisis cannot wait. That’s why I made it a priority to start this new Congress by reintroducing my Rural Health Care Agenda, a package of bills that directly target these challenges with bipartisan solutions. 

During my January visit to the Henry County Medical Center in West Tennessee, officials told me that hiring new staff is becoming increasingly difficult. The pay, benefits, and career opportunities they can offer don’t compete with those dangled by big-city hospitals in Jackson and Memphis. My first proposal would incentivize more health professionals to serve and plant roots in these far-flung areas by creating a new loan repayment program for qualifying individuals who agree to serve 5 years in a rural community. 

After hospitals hire more staff, they need to retain them, which means that these facilities need to be able to pay their bills. That’s where my second proposal comes in. It would ensure that rural hospitals receive fair payment for the care they provide by establishing a national standard to the Medicare hospital area wage index. Currently, the formula used to determine Medicare reimbursements to hospitals provides much lower payouts to health care providers in rural communities. Unless we level the playing field, rural providers won’t be able to make ends meet, and those hospitals will eventually shutter.

The final portion of my agenda would establish two 5-year grant programs to help communities meet urgent care needs by using existing resources. It would allow underserved areas to increase staffing resources, extend hours of operation, acquire additional technology and equipment, and pay for construction costs. 

Addressing these challenges will be difficult, but we have to start somewhere if we want to stop this rural health crisis in its tracks. In the future, billboards will brag about wait times and care quality, and patients will have one less thing to worry about during an emergency.