Each year, the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH) and other rural health-focused organizations set aside the third Thursday of November to recognize National Rural Health Day. Across the country, federal policymakers and rural health leaders are using the designation to describe ongoing challenges and new initiatives and put a spotlight on the work they are doing.
The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP), within the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), said the theme this year is "Advancing Behavioral Health Equity in Rural Communities." It is highlighting innovative ways rural communities address behavioral health challenges and expand access to behavioral healthcare services for those who need them the most.
For instance, more than $127 million has been awarded through the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program (RCORP) to strengthen capacity of rural communities to plan for, and provide, behavioral healthcare services, inclusive of mental health and opioid and substance use disorder (OUD/SUD) prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Another goal is to build the evidence base for behavioral health interventions in rural settings.
State offices of rural health are highlighting some of the impacts of COVID-19 on rural healthcare. "The pandemic showcased issues rural communities continue to have regarding health. This includes not just access to healthcare; it is access to housing, food, transportation, educational resources, good jobs and broadband," said Maggie Sauer, director of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Rural Health, in a statement. "These are needed to support health and community vitality. Our work is becoming multi-dimensional, more inclusive of a broader picture for rural. Amongst these includes needed Medicaid expansion, which would greatly increase not only access to care but a return on investment — particularly for our rural communities. Our rural health providers have faced unique challenges in the past two years providing critical access to care, as well as helping rural communities with vaccine hesitancy and finding resources to keep their community healthy. Those champions have been tireless and courageous. The real asset rural communities have is partnership, collaboration and a cultural philosophy about helping your neighbor. That is the power of rural."
In Maine, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Maine State Director Rhiannon Hampson joined Tribal leaders and partners in announcing that USDA has awarded a $5 million Community Facilities Emergency Rural Health Care grant to Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness. The grant will assist the Center for Wabanaki Health and Recovery, a department within Wabanaki Public Health & Wellness, move into the next stage of development to solve regional healthcare issues, focusing on those exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grant is an acknowledgement that Native and Indigenous wellness is long overdue in being recognized as a priority issue in America, said Hampson, in a statement. “There is a significant disparity in health outcomes for Tribal members and addressing this now is a critical part of the equity and justice work that needs to be done. We are humbled to move that work forward in large and small ways.”
As part of the National Rural Health Day celebration, the Chartis Center for Rural Health announced the 2022 Performance Leadership Award recipients. Based on the results of the Chartis Rural Hospital Performance INDEX, this annual award program recognizes top quartile performance (e.g., 75th percentile or above) among rural hospitals in Quality, Outcomes or Patient Perspective.
“Although the last two years have placed unprecedented pressure on the rural health safety net, the dedication to serving the community that we’re so accustomed to seeing from rural hospitals across the country hasn’t wavered,” said Michael Topchik, national leader, the Chartis Center for Rural Health, in a statement. “On National Rural Health Day, let us celebrate the power of rural and honor the facilities working tirelessly to provide access to high quality healthcare services to their communities.”
In his statement proclaiming National Rural Health Day, President Biden commented on the problem of rural hospital closures. “For too long, rural hospitals and clinics have been closing, resulting in trauma patients in rural areas often needing to travel twice as far for care and experiencing a higher rate of fatality compared to Americans living in urban areas,” he said. “These closures are also damaging to rural economies, where hospitals are often the biggest employers in town. Hunger and diet-related diseases are also more common in rural areas, deepening health inequities. And the COVID-19 pandemic further strained an already strapped system.”
His statement also mentioned some of the ways his administration is working to change the situation. The American Rescue Plan directed $8.5 billion to help rural providers cover soaring costs associated with COVID-19 — keeping rural hospitals and clinics open and contributing to nearly 700,000 previously uninsured rural Americans gaining healthcare coverage, Biden noted. The Biden Administration established a new Rural Emergency Hospital designation with additional Medicare reimbursement to help improve access to emergency and outpatient care. “We have provided $1.5 billion in scholarships and student loan assistance for rural clinicians and nurses, including over 20,000 National Health Service Corps members working in underserved areas,” he said. “In addition, we launched an innovative program to train rural providers through the Department of Veterans Affairs to better serve the nearly 5 million veterans who live in rural areas. We are also helping to build and renovate rural facilities while boosting access to telehealth — a lifeline in remote areas — with historic investments in rural broadband and expansion of services that can be delivered via telehealth to providers serving Medicare beneficiaries.”