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National Grange: Rural health care markets worth pursuing

By Leroy Watson, National Grange Special Director for Trademark Protection and Brand Management, The New Grange (May/June 2011)

  JUNE 11, 2011 --

Former National Grange Legislative Director Leroy Watson was recently invited to address more than 60 grassroots representatives of the Greater Des Moines Partnership on May 12, during the Partnership’s annual Washington, D.C., tour. 

Watson spoke on major health care issues facing rural communities across Iowa and the nation and challenged the representatives of the Des Moines business community to think creatively to develop cost effective and creative solutions to the problems of delivering affordable, quality health care to farming, rural and tribal communities in Iowa, across the United States and around the world.

Watson told the Iowa business leaders on behalf of the National Grange that health care markets in rural communities are worth pursuing. 

Rural residents constitute about 17 percent of the nation’s population, or more than 50 million individuals. The population of rural America is greater than the population of nearly all of the individual member nations of the European Union and the combined economic impact of America’s rural communities would rank rural America as one of the ten largest economies in the world.

Demographically, rural America, on average has more older citizens and fewer younger citizens than the other parts of our nation. The state of Iowa, Watson pointed out, has the fifth highest per capita number of citizens over the age of 65. 

Iowa has also seen a decline, by 2.2 percent in the number of its citizens under the age of 18 since the 2000 Census, while experiencing a modest 4.4 percent total population growth for the same period. 

These examples, and the implications for the future of health care delivery, track similar population measures in states with significant rural and farming communities.

Watson explained three important trends that he challenged the Des Moines business community to incorporate into their future business plans related to rural health care delivery. 

First, there has been a significant, nation dis-investment in health care assets and facilities in rural communities in recent decades. With 17 percent of the nation’s population, only 10 percent of the nation’s doctors practice in rural communities and more than 425 rural hospitals have closed over the past 30 years. 

Already at a disadvantage related to access to health care services, rural communities will need innovative approaches to bridge the existing and future capacity gap in health care.

Second, the average age of the American farmer is 58 years old and nearly one-third of all U.S. farmers are age 65 or older. 

“The most productive generation of agriculturalists in the history of the planet is getting ready to retire,” Watson told the Iowa representatives. 

The greatest challenge facing Iowa agriculture and farming communities across the nation is the generations transfer of assets to a new generation of family farmers who will continue the productive tradition of managing our farm assets in an environmentally responsible manner to feed an ever hungrier world. 

Health care will be at the center of this debate. 

Young people will not choose to farm in communities where they do not have access to health care services. 

And for the existing generation of senior farmers, Watson alluded that the most important farm program for the average U.S. farmer over the age of 65 today is actually Medicare, because access to basic health insurance is helping extend the productive lives of this generation of farmers.

Third, Watson noted that 45 percent of the current members of the active service military in our nation were from rural communities. 

As many as 50 percent of our veterans currently live in rural communities. The martial tradition to serve in the military is a deep patriotic, cultural tradition across rural America. 

We can expect that a high proportion of our next generation of veterans, returning home after the longest, sustained period of active military conflict since the Vietnam War, will elect to live in our rural communities. 

Addressing the health care needs of our “wounded warriors” is a national responsibility that will fall disproportionately on our rural communities.

Finally Watson predicted that the retirement of the baby boom generation will see a significant interest by many baby boomers to live part or all of their retirement in rural communities. 

New retirees are going to be looking to rural communities for lifestyle, cost of living and financial advantages that the urban and suburban communities where they spent their working lives can’t offer them. 

Watson said that while many of the first wave of baby boomers, caught in the financial crisis of the Great Recession are going to probably extend their working lives longer than they had originally planned, the desire for affordable and secure retirement remains strong and will eventually see an out migration to affordable rural living. 

Local governments in rural communities will also soon to begin to actively recruit baby boomer retiree immigration as a way to expand their tax base and local economy. Local governments will see baby boomer retires as preferred residents because they will bring few children with them who will enter the public school system. 

But eventually, retirees will begin to demand increased levels of health care services in their rural retirement communities and addressing this trend needs to begin now, as opposed to later.

The Greater Des Moines Partnership is the premier economic and community development organization serving Greater Des Moines, IA. Its mission is to maximize local resources to address opportunities for economic and community growth.

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