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Why Can’t People Get Healthcare in Rural America?

There is a medical crisis in rural America. There aren’t enough physicians to meet the needs of small towns, and the problem is only getting worse. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are more than 6,600 primary care health professional shortage areas (HPSA) scattered throughout the United States. The total number of HPSAs in the United States, including areas that lack adequate mental health services and dental care, is nearly 17,000. Most of these shortages occur in rural areas.

The same rural areas experiencing a shortage of medical services have also been hit hard by the ongoing opioid epidemic. In Ohio, a state with 382 HPSAs, an average of 30 people out of 100,00 will die due to an opioid-related overdose. In West Virginia, a state with 304 HPSAs, more than 41 out of 100,000 people will die from an opioid-related overdose. The overlap between areas experiencing high death rates as a result of the opioid epidemic and areas in critical need of basic health services is not a coincidence.

State and local governments have an obligation to recognize and correct healthcare shortages in rural areas.  Current incentive programs to encourage doctors to invest time in rural communities must be improved and advanced, while new facilities must be built to accommodate community and geographic needs. Creative solutions to healthcare access, for example conducting therapy sessions or physician visits through video calls, must be explored in order to extend crucial treatment to the rural communities that might not otherwise have enough work for full-time specialty medical staff.

The federal government must continue to provide financial support to the state and local social service agencies striving to meet their communities’ needs. Reducing federal financial support to states, specifically in reductions to Medicaid, will not create better health outcomes for people addicted to drugs or experiencing mental illness. Instead, these cuts will shift the financial burden of treating these patients onto the states, resulting in a lack of treatment for low income populations altogether.

Whether improvements come from the states or federal government, many people can’t wait for the investment in healthcare infrastructure that rural areas so badly need. In place of local institutions, families with loved ones experiencing acute mental health issues or at risk of overdosing on opioids should consider traveling to another area or state where life-saving treatment services are available. Traveling to receive medical care is not an ideal option and it is not an option at all for those who can’t afford the price of a plane or bus ticket. However, desperate families should know they have this alternative available to them if getting help cannot be delayed.

Rural communities face an uphill battle when it comes to healthcare access. The geographic isolation of rural life makes it difficult to share physicians with neighboring counties, while the small populations guarantee a modest town budget with little room to accommodate social services. What assistance the federal government will continue to provide these towns in the form of Medicaid funding and other grants is up in the air. The current administration must prioritize access to mental health and addiction treatment services in rural areas, or the number of unnecessarily sick people and preventable deaths across the nation will continue to rise.