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Medicare Spotlight: National Grange Blogs

By Grace Boatright, National Grange Legislative Director (Medicare Blog, Partnership for the Future of Medicare 5/26/13)

  MAY 27, 2013 --

The ever-advancing technology geared toward convenience in today’s society make it difficult to imagine that access to anything still remains a problem. However, despite the immense availability of necessary services in urban areas, rural America is still struggling to gain access to these same conveniences, particularly quality healthcare. Rural residents, as opposed to those in urban areas, face far greater challenges accessing quality, affordable healthcare. Remote locations, smaller populations, fewer physicians and nurses, limited access to new healthcare technology, and a lack of health insurance providers increase the number of untreated, misdiagnosed and chronic health issues in rural America.  

This is especially unfortunate because rural Americans are statistically more likely to require Medicare and its services. Rural residents tend to be older, uninsured, small business owners. In fact, the average farmer is now 57 or older and that number grows higher every year. At the Grange, our mission is to give farmers, ranchers and other rural Americans all of the resources they require to remain there, including access to quality healthcare services. However, despite advancements in both healthcare and mobile technology, this remains to be a challenge.

Currently, there are almost 2,200 Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSA) in rural areas, in contrast to 910 in urban cities. This stems from the fact that only 10% of all physicians practice in rural areas. Similarly, rural populations average 40 dentists per 100,000 residents. Psychiatrists and psychologists are even harder to come by, with 25% of nonmetropolitan counties lacking mental health services, compared to just 5% in urban counties. Over 470 rural hospitals have closed in the past 25 years, causing many rural Americans to drive over 150 miles to the nearest major hospital. Obtaining care this way, especially infused services such as chemotherapy, can be extremely burdensome.

Pharmacy access, or lack thereof, is another major healthcare issue facing rural America. In many small towns across the country, the pharmacist is the most knowledgeable healthcare specialist within reasonable driving distance. Unfortunately, rural towns often have trouble obtaining and keeping pharmacies in their areas. There are currently over 1,800 community pharmacies operating as the only retail pharmacy within their rural communities, with 22% of these being located more than 20 miles from the next closest retail pharmacy. Roughly 30% of rural pharmacy closures in the last two years have left a community without a pharmacy at all.

Access to the telehealth services afforded by reliable, high-speed Internet has revolutionized healthcare in many rural communities. However, though revolutionary and steadily expanding, telehealth services are still not an option for hundreds of unserved rural communities across remote areas of the country. Today, 18 million rural Americans do not yet enjoy access to high-speed Internet. If you’re unable to use the Internet to research an ailment or proper prescription usage, then having access to physical healthcare services becomes very important.

Bridging the gap between urban healthcare services and rural healthcare availability for America’s farmers and ranchers must become a priority if we intend to sustain an abundant, affordable food supply for our nation and the world. We must encourage the establishment of the necessary infrastructure for the expansion of broadband Internet, allowing rural patients to utilize the telehealth services already enjoyed by those in urban areas. In addition, the federal government needs to maintain block grants/match funds to states for community health clinics and back incentive programs for doctors and students who will agree to practice in rural areas where basic medical care is unavailable. These and other solutions must be found and implemented quickly to ensure access to affordable healthcare for every American regardless of age, race, income, health condition, or location.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank the Partnership for the Future of Medicare for their devotion to this issue and for having me as a guest blogger on their site.

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