Rising costs. Long drives to see a doctor. Months-long waits to see a specialist. When I visited Carbondale and Granite City in August, those were some of the concerns I heard from people who are facing real challenges accessing quality, affordable health care in rural communities.
A recent Northern Illinois University study on rural trends reported that in just six years, the downstate Illinois population of those 65 years and older will have grown by 27 percent. The rural health care workforce, however, is not keeping pace.
More than two million rural Illinoisans live in communities with a dentist shortage. Three million live in parts of the state with too few doctors. Five million live where mental health services are nearly nonexistent. Hospitals for rural Illinoisans are usually more than 10 miles away compared to four miles for city residents.
The consequences speak for themselves — half of adults with mental health needs do not access treatment, only one in 10 people with substance use disorders get the care they need, and 43 percent of rural Americans do not access oral health care. That is unacceptable in the 21st century. Something has to change.
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Newly-minted medical workers frequently have little choice but to find higher-paying jobs in cities and suburbs so that they can recover from their astronomically high student loan debt. That means we must get creative with recruitment and retention of health care staffing in rural areas. Last month, I joined my Republican Senate colleague, Marsha Blackburn from Tennessee, to introduce the bipartisan Rural America Health Corps Act, which will incentivize doctors, nurses, and dentists who choose to work in rural communities by granting increased student loan forgiveness.
Our bill builds upon the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), an existing program that provides up to $50,000 in student loan forgiveness to more than 3,000 health care personnel who opt to work in medically-underserved sites nationwide. But today, no more than 70 of the 550 NHSC Illinois awardees serve in rural areas. Our legislation creates a new, dedicated funding source for medical graduates who specifically pick rural communities for their work. Those health providers would get increases in the period of loan forgiveness, and therefore total funding amount, from the current two-year period to five years to encourage them to plant roots where they serve.
Rural areas are great places to call home, with a wonderful quality of life and a solid spirit of community. But if we are serious about reversing population losses, attracting and retaining local businesses, and spurring new investment in the local economy, then we must create better access to health care and support the hospitals and clinics that anchor our communities. Nothing is more important than the health of your town.
To meet the growing needs of our aging population, combat the opioid epidemic, and lower health care costs for rural Illinoisans, we need to bring the best health care professionals to downstate. So let’s start building the bridge between too few medical providers and the long distances between them. And let’s start building up the next generation of health professionals in rural Illinois.