WASHINGTON D.C. [11/21/2019]—Today, on National Rural Health Day, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)—both co-chairs of the Senate Rural Health Caucus—announced their bipartisan bill to address the disparity in access to health care in rural America by supporting key rural health workforce programs.
Right now, rural America is struggling to recruit and retain the health care providers they need to support their communities. Geographic isolation and scarce housing options create challenges for rural health care providers to attract primary and specialty care physicians, nurses, technicians, ambulance drivers, and case managers. Even when providers move to rural communities, the volume of their work can be overwhelming and reason enough to leave rural areas for urban cities. This leads to high turnover and exacerbates the disparity in access to care in rural America.
Sens. Smith and Barrasso’s Strengthening Our Rural Health Workforce Act would help rural communities overcome these challenges by ensuring the Primary Care Training and Enhancement program continues—which creates more training positions for family, general internal, and general pediatric physicians—and guaranteeing that the training has a rural focus. The bill also improves recruitment of providers by funding area health centers (AHECs), which help recruit and support practitioners in underserved and rural areas.
“I’ve visited lots of rural doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals where I’ve heard how difficult it can be to recruit and retain physicians and other medical professionals. Our bill would get at the root of this problem by helping health systems in rural areas recruit providers and support them so they’re more likely to stay,” said Sen. Smith. “It would create a rural health workforce commission of providers, health educators and rural leaders to address workforce challenges, because those who work and live in rural areas know best how to meet the health care needs of their communities. We also focus on strengthening access to mental health care, because access to comprehensive health care should not be dependent on where you live.”
“Improving rural health care is a personal priority of mine. As co-chairman of the Senate Rural Health Caucus, I know patients deserve access to high-quality care, no matter where they live,” said Sen. Barrasso. “This bipartisan legislation improves access to providers in rural communities and focuses on future workforce needs. Together, Republicans and Democrats can make health care more accessible for all Americans.”
This legislation is supported by the National Rural Health Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the Minnesota Medical Association, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the Council of Academic Family Medicine, the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians, the National Association of Community Health Centers, the National Indian Health Board, and the American Hospital Association.
The Strengthening Our Rural Health Workforce Act would also establish a new National Rural Health Care Workforce Commission. The Commission—which may include providers, health educators, and other rural health leaders—will develop both short- and long-term goals to improve the rural health workforce and help coordinate work to achieve these goals across federal agencies and at the national, state, tribal, and local levels. Specifically, the Commission will make recommendations to:
- Develop and improve training needed to overcome workforce challenges across diverse geographic regions;
- Identify and help remove barriers to rural health workforce recruitment and retention efforts, prioritizing efforts to address workforce shortages in fields relating to substance use disorder treatment, emergency medicine, and other high-need areas;
- Encourage innovation by disseminating information about best-practices and promising new models;
- Collect and disseminate data about workforce supply and distribution; and
- Support state, tribal, and local efforts to develop and deploy the rural health care workforce.
Finally, Senator Smith and Barrasso’s legislation would award grants for States to translate the new Rural Health Care Workforce Commission’s recommendations into reality. States in rural areas would compete for grants to address the rural health workforce shortages in their own communities.
Earlier this year, Sens. Smith and Barrasso also introduced the Rural Health Clinic Modernization Act to modernize decades-old rules that are preventing communities from getting the best possible care at Rural Health Clinics. Their legislation would expand the ability of physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide care in these clinics, and improve the ability of clinics to offer telehealth services.