By Taylor Knopf

Last month, more than 40 U.S. senators from largely rural states sent a letter about the future of rural health care to the new Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

While rural health care affects the majority of the North Carolina’s counties, U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis did not sign it.

U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)
U.S. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC)

When asked, a spokesperson for Burr replied in an email, “Senator Burr has a record of supporting rural health care,” and attached links to two press releases from 2012 and 2016. Tillis’ office did not respond to multiple phone call and email attempts by North Carolina Health News.

The letter, initiated by U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, (R-Miss.), explains the importance of continued health care to the 20 percent of Americans living in rural communities, often miles from medical providers.

The senators write that there is bipartisan interest in new innovations and care models for rural areas like telehealth and remote patient monitoring. Telehealth is an emerging way of diagnosing and monitoring patients virtually.

“Technology and innovation have allowed for better access to health care, but there are still vulnerable areas where quality, affordable care is lacking,” Wicker said in a press release accompanying the letter.

“I look forward to working with Secretary Price and the new Administration to ensure that rural America has a seat at the table as we move forward with improving the nation’s health-care system,” he continued.

headshot of Tillis
Sen. Thom Tillis, official Senate photo

The letter to Price states the importance of being fiscally responsible in the approach to rural health care, yet the U.S. senators believe that investing in rural areas will “yield substantial returns.”

“As you take on this new leadership role at HHS, we request that you work with us to ensure that the federal government does not act as an impediment to providing health care in rural communities. Overreaching and onerous regulations from Washington disproportionately harm rural America. We believe that together we can enact and implement effective policies that help providers innovate in care delivery and enable them to make efficient use of available resources.” the letter continues.

Additionally, the letter emphasizes the importance of rural hospitals and medical centers, not only as a means of providing care but also as primary employers to the surrounding area.

“More than 80 rural hospitals have closed in recent years,” according to a press release from Wicker’s office. “Some estimates show another 700 rural hospitals are at risk of closure.”

Maggie Elehwany, National Rural Health Association vice president of government affairs and policy, said she is appreciative of the senators’ support for rural health care, saying the rural hospital closure crisis is one of NRHA’s largest concerns. She said hospital closings create a workforce issue and that many towns “wither and die” after the local hospital is shuttered.

“We are investing lots of efforts in health care reform, but there are still problems which are exacerbated in rural communities,” Elehwany said.

The lack of Medicaid expansion, makes health care “unfortunately unattainable” in many rural areas, she added.


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Taylor Knopf writes about mental health, including addiction and harm reduction. She lives in Raleigh and previously wrote for The News & Observer. Knopf has a bachelor's degree in sociology with a...