WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) spoke on the Senate floor yesterday about her Rural Health Agenda, a trio of bills that will make it easier for medical practitioners to serve and treat rural Americans in the communities where they live.

To watch Senator Blackburn’s speech, click below or here.

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REMARKS AS PREPARED

I am taking the floor today to ask my colleagues for help in protecting the 20% of Americans who live in rural areas, and are in danger of losing, or have lost entirely, access to health care in their communities.

Since 2010, 118 rural hospitals have shut their doors. Fourteen of those facilities were in my home state of Tennessee. 

Medical practitioners are paying attention to this trend, and more often than not choose stability in the cities and suburbs over the uphill battle that comes with practicing medicine without access to the funding and modern resources many clinics take for granted. 

As a result, rural patients are left to suffer through an illness or emergency, or sacrifice time, money, and mileage for even the chance of a diagnosis. 

The system is broken—but this year, I have been able to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to pick up the pieces.

My three-bill “Rural Health Agenda” comes at the direct request of small town mayors and local leaders who are struggling to keep their communities healthy.

Last week, my fellow Tennesseans Congressman Kustoff and Congressman Roe introduced House companions for all three pieces of legislation. 

I will tell you, I’ve been talking to Tennesseans, and they want my colleagues here in the Senate to know that they are ready for us to get this done.

Now, if you’ve never lived in a rural area, hearing someone talk about driving 20 or 30 minutes to the nearest doctor probably doesn’t seem like a problem. 

But in the country, “30 minutes away” translates into miles of driving through isolated areas. Chances are good that you’ll lose your cell phone signal. There are no EMTs or rapid response teams; and if there is a local doctor, he or she may not have any specialized expertise—which could spell disaster for patients dealing with a complicated diagnosis.   

The first component of my Rural Health Agenda, the Telehealth Across State Lines Act, will lead to the creation of uniform, national best practices for the provision of telemedicine across state lines, and set up a grant program to expand existing telehealth programs, and incentivize the adoption of telehealth by Medicare and Medicaid programs. 

But implementation of telehealth will not eliminate the need for face to face interactions between patients and doctors. 

This leads us to another problem: rural communities keep themselves afloat on strapped budgets, which means that plans to open so much as a bare-bones urgent care facility can get derailed by startup and staffing costs. 

The Rural Health Innovation Act, the second component of my Rural Health Agenda, features two grant programs:

  • The first will fund the expansion of existing health care centers, such as local nursing homes, into urgent care walk-in clinics. Facilities will be able to use grant money to purchase equipment, and hire Physicians, Physician Assistants, Nurse Practitioners, and other essential staff.
  •  A second grant program will expand rural health departments to meet urgent care and triage needs.

Of course, this leads us to another problem: expanded facilities are useless if we have no medical personnel willing to staff them. 

I have been working on this problem with my friend from Illinois, Senator Durbin. We recognized from the beginning that throwing money and equipment at an updated facility won’t convince medical professionals to establish a rural practice. 

We wrote the Rural America Health Corps Act to encourage practitioners to set up shop in rural areas.

The bill creates a new student loan repayment program that doctors and other medical professionals can take advantage of.

In exchange for those loan payments, they will have to agree to serve for at least five years in a rural area with a health professional shortage—but the benefit comes tax-free. 

Mister President, I have spoken to rural communities all across Tennessee, and I will tell you that these bills don't simply address a matter of convenience. 

My fellow Tennesseans want my colleagues to know that they aren’t just frustrated with the long drives and unanswered questions.

They’re worried that their child’s cough will turn into pneumonia before they’re allowed a full day off of work to drive to a pediatrician. 

They have no idea what they would do if they were diagnosed with an illness that requires continuous care. 

They do, however, know what would probably happen if someone they love suffered a heart attack or other major emergency. 

But if these bills pass, they will no longer have to live with the knowledge that they have been abandoned by our health care system. 

I ask my colleagues to let these people know that someone is listening. 

Mister President, they can do so by cosponsoring Senate Bills 2406, 2408, and 2411.

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