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Public Statements


Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mrs. BLACKBURN. Mr. President, I wanted to speak for a few minutes today to talk a little bit about rural healthcare and to ask my colleagues for help in protecting the 20 percent of Americans who live in rural areas who are in danger of losing--or may have lost entirely-- access to healthcare in their communities.

Since 2010, 118 rural hospitals have shut their doors. Fourteen of those facilities are in my State of Tennessee. Medical practitioners are paying attention to this trend and, more often than not, choose stability in the cities and suburbs over the uphill battle that comes with practicing medicine without access to the funding and modern resources many clinics now take for granted. As a result, rural patients are left to suffer through illnesses or emergencies or sacrifice time, money, and mileage for even the chance of a diagnosis. This system is broken, but this year, I have been able, by working with my colleagues on each side of the aisle, to kind of pick up the pieces around this.

I have a three-bill rural health agenda, which comes at the direct request of smalltown mayors and local leaders who are struggling in my State to keep these communities afloat. Last week, my fellow Tennesseans, Congressmen Kustoff and Roe, introduced House companions to all three pieces of legislation.

I will tell you, I have been talking to Tennesseans, and they want my colleagues in the Senate to know what we should do about this issue. If you have never lived in a rural area, hearing someone talk about driving 20 or 30 minutes to the nearest doctor probably really doesn't seem like a problem to you. But in the country, 30 minutes away translates into miles of driving through isolated areas. Chances are good that you will not even have cell service for part of that drive. There are no EMTs or rapid response teams. And if there is a local doctor, he or she may not have any specialized expertise, which could spell disaster for patients dealing with a complicated diagnosis.

The first component of the agenda is the Telehealth Across State Lines Act, which would lead to the creation of uniform, national best practices for the provision of telemedicine across State lines and set up a grant program to expand existing telehealth programs and incentivize the adoption of telehealth by Medicare and Medicaid Programs. But implementation of telehealth will not eliminate the need for face-to-face interactions between patients and doctors.

This leads us to another problem. Rural communities keep themselves afloat on strapped budgets, which means that plans to open as much as a bare-bones urgent care facility can be derailed by all the startup costs. The Rural Health Innovation Act--the second part of the agenda-- features two grant programs. The first one will fund the expansion of existing healthcare centers--such as local nursing homes--into urgent care walk-in clinics. Facilities will be able to use grant money to purchase equipment, hire physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and other essential staff.

A second grant program will expand rural health departments to meet urgent care and triage needs. This is using programs that already exist, tailoring them to the needs of rural America.

Of course, this points out the third issue: Expanded facilities are useless if there are no medical personnel. I have been working on this problem with my friend from Illinois, Senator Durbin, and he spoke about this on the floor a few minutes ago. We recognized from the beginning that throwing money and equipment at an updated facility will not convince medical professionals to establish a rural practice, so we wrote the Rural America Health Corps Act to encourage practitioners to set up shop in rural areas. The bill creates a new student loan repayment program that doctors and other medical professionals can take advantage of. In exchange for those loan payments, they will have to agree to serve for at least 5 years in a rural area with a health professional shortage, but the benefit comes tax-free.

I have spoken to rural communities all across my State. I know Senator Durbin has talked across the State of Illinois. I will tell you that these bills don't simply address a matter of convenience. My fellow Tennesseans want my colleagues to know they aren't just frustrated with the long drives and unanswered questions. They are worried that their child's cough will turn into pneumonia before they are allowed a full day off from work to drive to a pediatrician. They have no idea what they would do if they were diagnosed with an illness that requires continuous care.

They do, however, know what would probably happen if someone they love suffered a heart attack or had another major emergency. They are very fearful.

If these bills pass, they will no longer have to live with the knowledge that they have been abandoned by our healthcare system. They will have access to healthcare in their communities.

I ask my colleagues to let these people know that yes, indeed, somebody is listening, and I ask them to do so by cosponsoring Senate bills 2406, 2408, and 2411.

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