Dec 8, 2022 - News

Heartland report helps rural communities navigate health care

Illustration of a hand checking off boxes in the shape of health pluses.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Affordability, telehealth and a trained, motivated workforce are the keys to keeping the engine of rural health care running smoothly.

What's happening: A Heartland Forward report out Thursday outlines strategies policymakers and community leaders in rural America can use to improve health care access and services.

Driving the news: Since the height of the pandemic, many rural hospitals in the U.S. face a funding crisis.

Zoom in: In Arkansas, a governor-appointed steering committee recommended in September that $60 million in ARPA money be used to help rural hospitals on the verge of demise.

Details: The Heartland report analyzes data from Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee, but researchers see potential applications for its concepts nationwide. Authors found three areas with the most possible impact:

  1. Increasing price transparency and working to reduce complexity in understanding the health care system can lead to residents using it more often for preventive care rather than acute care.
  2. Expanding access to telehealth by lowering policy barriers for providers and normalizing the tools for patients.
  3. Boosting the health care workforce through training, streamlining licensing regulations and providing advancement opportunities for practitioners.

Be smart: True to its nature as a "think and do tank" Heartland researchers developed three tools for communities in the six-state region to use to guide care-related planning and decision making:

  • A policy recommendations document that provides a detailed map of barriers and opportunities to address affordability, telehealth and workforce issues.
  • An interactive accessibility dashboard that provides detailed county, congressional district and state-level data on various health and wellness topics.
  • An interactive labor market tool with detailed geographic data on 31 health care professions.

The bottom line: Researchers write that as access to health care declines in nonurban areas, the rural workforce becomes less productive and slows economic performance, so a focus on health and wellness will also rev up an area's economic vitality.

Our thought bubble via the authors of Axios Vitals: The report didn't focus on one key solution that's helped shore up hospitals in other areas in the country: Medicaid expansion. That idea, however, has even gained traction in Republican-led states such as South Dakota via ballot initiative, but is considered unlikely in remaining red state holdouts.

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