Guest opinion: The right prescription for rural health care

Billings Gazette

by Dick Brown

It’s no secret that the health care system in many of our smallest communities is fragile. Montana has a higher proportion of older residents than most other states, and older people tend to need more medical treatment for more severe conditions. Dramatically escalating drug prices, ever-expanding federal regulations and persistent shortages of health care professionals make the situation worse.

At the heart of all this is the frustration felt by health care providers that federal officials who regulate the Medicare and Medicaid programs just don’t get life in rural America. They don’t seem to understand that rules for hospitals in Harlem in New York City don’t work in Harlem, Montana.

In response to these frustrations, the Montana Hospital Association (MHA) and Montana Sen. Jon Tester recently convened the first-ever Montana Rural Health Summit. Held in Ennis on May 31, its purpose was to educate federal health officials about the realities of rural medicine and the impact of misguided federal rules and policies on our ability to provide medical treatment to our communities.

With federal Medicare and Medicaid officials, other Health and Human Services representatives and staff from key congressional committees in the audience, hospital leaders, other providers, health advocates and community leaders talked about the unique challenges we face in rural Montana. They also outlined possible solutions.

Tester’s leadership

It’s too early to point to significant results from this historic meeting, but we are optimistic that results will follow and not just the “we’re working on it” progress typically touted by folks in Washington, D.C.

Montana’s hospitals are committed to ensuring Montanans have a fighting chance when they need medical treatment. Hospitals are the cornerstone of the health system in the communities they serve, making sure families, veterans, Native Americans and seniors have the best care possible – and that they don’t have to drive hundreds of miles to get it.

MHA was extremely fortunate to have Tester as our partner in this effort. Like me, he comes from a small town in north central Montana and understands firsthand the value of rural hospitals and providers.

Thanks to delegation

Tester has emerged as a leader in the Senate on rural health issues, serving as the lead sponsor on a number of bills that would address misguided federal policies affecting rural health care providers. He responded to MHA members’ concerns about the shortage of physicians by introducing the Restoring Rural Residencies Act, which will encourage more doctors to practice in Montana by restoring Medicare’s ability to pay for residency training at rural hospitals. He also co-sponsored legislation to make it easier for health care providers to coordinate care to seniors who only have access to mid-level practitioners.

Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke have also been strong supporters of rural health. Each has cosponsored key bills that address rural concerns and have weighed in with federal health officials on critical issues.

We appreciate the Montana congressional delegation’s support for rural health care, and will continue to advocate for bipartisan support of measures that will strengthen the health of all our neighbors. We will also continue to push for a better understanding of life in rural Montana by encouraging federal policymakers to make an effort to visit more often.