The Senate Rural Health Caucus Needs NC Voices

Blog,Public Health
A photo of clouds swirling over the US Capitol dome is meant to illustrate that Thom Tillis and Richard Burr need to join the Senate Rural Health Caucus

Our founder, Dawn Carter, wrote the following opinion piece with Joann Anderson, the outgoing CEO of UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton, NC. A shortened version was published by the Raleigh News & Observer on Nov. 14, 2021.

Rural healthcare is facing a crisis all across America, and North Carolina is no exception. From Belhaven to Burnsville, seven rural hospitals across NC have shut down completely since 2005, and 19 more are considered at risk of closure due to precarious finances.

That may not seem like a huge number, but it represents more than one-third of all the rural hospitals in our state. Imagine if 1 out of 3 urban and suburban hospitals were at risk of closing – every level of government would scramble to find a solution. But because this particular crisis is playing out in rural areas, it’s easy to ignore.

For rural communities, losing a hospital can be devastating: Federal statistics show that rural residents were forced to travel nearly 8 times farther to access emergency and coronary care after their local hospital closed, and the overall availability of physicians declined by 16 percent. Not surprisingly, that lack of healthcare access can affect both length and quality of life: According to a study from the University of South Carolina, rural communities saw higher rates of mortality, unemployment, and poverty in the wake of a hospital closure.

This is an issue that affects a huge number of North Carolinians. According to our Office of State Budget and Management (OSBM), nearly 44% of the state population is “non-municipal,” and 80 out of 100 counties are considered majority rural.

Given the high stakes for rural North Carolina, you might expect our U.S. Senators to be deeply involved in this issue. Unfortunately, neither Richard Burr nor Thom Tillis has taken even the most basic step of joining the Senate Rural Health Caucus, a bipartisan group of Senators working to find solutions to the rural healthcare crisis.

Joining a caucus is one of the clearest ways that Senators can demonstrate their legislative priorities. Some choose not to join any caucuses at all, precisely because it puts them on record as caring about some issues while downplaying others. But that’s not the case in North Carolina, where Sen. Tillis and Sen. Burr have joined a wide variety of caucuses such as Philanthropy, Cybersecurity, Human Rights, and Military Families.

We applaud our Senators for their involvement on those important issues, but, in a state with 4.5 million rural residents, we have to wonder why they can’t find the time to support their own rural constituents by joining the Rural Health Caucus.

There is nothing partisan about this call. It’s rare to find Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell at the same table, but both have chosen to join the Rural Health Caucus because the issue is important to voters in their state. What about the rural residents of North Carolina? Don’t they deserve to have a voice (or two) at that table?

With National Rural Health Day coming up on Nov. 18, we believe now is the perfect time for our Senators to step up and join the Senate Rural Health Caucus.

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