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National Rural Health Day Draws Attention to Healthcare Access

National Rural Health Day recognizes rural healthcare providers and the patients they serve. Courtesy: USDA
National Rural Health Day recognizes rural healthcare providers and the patients they serve. Courtesy: USDA
November 19, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa - Iowa is among the top 10 states with adults in excellent or good health, according to a survey by the Iowa Department of Health.

In large part, that's the result of Iowa's rural health care system, since 43 percent of the state's population lives in rural areas or small communities. Bill Menner, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development state director in Iowa, says it makes sense for his agency to be involved in rural health care.

"Rural communities provide support to ag producers," says Menner. "Without rural hospitals, our farmers and ranchers might not have access to critical health care."

There are 90 rural hospitals and 152 certified rural health clinics in Iowa.

Since 2009, he says USDA Rural Development has provided $350 million in grants and loans for rural hospitals, medical clinics, nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Iowa.

"Without access to health care, rural communities will struggle to survive," says Menner. "And it's our role as an agency that Congress has designated for helping to support small towns and rural communities, we want to make sure health care is accessible and available."

Menner notes that rural hospitals rely disproportionately on these government programs, due in part to their small size and higher percentage of Medicare patients.

More than 55 rural hospitals have closed in the U.S. in the last five years alone, and while Iowa's facilities aren't among them, Menner says keeping them strong requires work. Part of that is recruiting personnel.

"One of the big challenges facing rural healthcare today is access to doctors and nurses, and physician's assistants, mental healthcare providers," says Menner. "It's tough to attract them into a rural area, especially if they have never lived in small towns."

He adds only 10 percent of the physicians in the United States practice in rural areas.

Jeff Stein, Public News Service - IA