New legislation aims to bolster rural health care after hospital closures

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Nov 13, 2019 at 8:28 PM

Amid concerns over health care access in rural areas that have experienced hospital closures, Tennessee Congressmen Phil Roe, R-1st, and David Kustoff, R-8th, introduced a “Rural Health Agenda” to the House of Representatives on Oct. 29.

The House agenda consists of the Rural America Health Corps Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., the Telehealth Across State Lines Act and the Rural Health Innovation Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H. In July, the three Senate bills were sponsored and introduced by Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.

“The problems will not be fixed overnight, but this package will go a long way toward addressing barriers to access in areas that often need care the most,” Roe said in a statement announcing the legislative package.

Roe said the Rural America Health Corps Act aims to create a new student loan repayment program called the Rural Provider Loan Repayment program, which will lend to physicians who do residencies in rural areas. Roe said this could “expose physicians to the unique care needs of rural areas and potentially attract physicians to stay in these areas.”

For rural patients who are unable to make it to facilities with certain specialists, Roe said the Telehealth Across State Lines Act would allow patients to see telehealth specialists remotely across state lines in the same way Veterans Affairs patients are currently allowed. 

“There may be someone who is in Abingdon (Virginia) who needs something by a specialist down in Johnson City or Kingsport, and this will allow them to use telehealth,” Roe said. “It’s the only way in the future you’re going to get specialty care without long commutes for people in rural areas.” 

Through the Rural Health Innovation Act, Roe said legislators hope to establish a grant program to allow health departments far from other hospitals to administer urgent care and other services. Roe said this would be particularly helpful in regions that have already experienced hospital closures. 

“I’m not sure why we haven’t used health departments for that forever,” he said after pointing out that there have been 12 rural hospital closures in Tennessee in the last several years.

Roe said the agenda’s bills are still largely in their infancy and will “take a little time to work their way through committees.” 

“We’ll be working on this well into next year,” Roe said. “I think we’ll get bipartisan support for all of these bills. As a matter of fact, we already do (have that support).” 

Blackburn spoke about the agenda on the Senate floor last week, saying rural patients “will no longer have to live with the knowledge that they have been abandoned by our health care system” if these bills pass.