Doug Jones

United States Senator for Alabama

Senators Jones, Rounds, and Smith Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Improve Rural Health Care Delivery

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The Rural Health Liaison Act would improve coordination among the USDA and rural communities

Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.) today introduced his first piece of original legislation, the bipartisan Rural Health Liaison Act (RHLA), with Senators Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) as co-sponsors. This legislation will improve coordination among the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and other health care stakeholders through the creation of a rural health liaison. The RHLA has already garnered support from the National Rural Health Association and the National Farmers Union.

USDA plays a significant role in federal rural development efforts. The agency has the capability to finance the construction of hospitals, to implement telehealth programs, and carry out health education initiatives. The RHLA would establish a rural health liaison to ensure USDA is fully coordinated and leveraged with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as well as other important stakeholders.

“Like many states with large rural communities, Alabama faces unique challenges when it comes to providing access to health care for all of our residents,” said Senator Doug Jones, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. “I’m proud that the first bill I’m introducing as a lead sponsor will help address an issue that affects so many people in my state and across rural America. By establishing a rural health liaison at USDA, we can better coordinate federal resources and expand health care access to Americans who have for too long struggled to receive quality, affordable care in their own communities.”

“Making sure all South Dakotans, including those in rural areas who live far away from a major hospital or clinic, have access to the same quality of care as those living in big cities is a priority of mine,” said Senator Mike Rounds. “Creating a position within USDA that is solely focused on improving health care in rural areas will help us address the unique health challenges facing our small, sparsely-populated communities. It will also help bridge gaps between USDA and other federal agencies like HHS.” 

“When I meet with farmers, and rural business and community leaders, the first issue that comes up is health care,” said Sen. Tina Smith, a member of the Senate Health and Agriculture Committees. “And I think the USDA can do more to help rural communities take on health care challenges and make sure that every family can access the care they need. As a leader of the Senate Rural Health Caucus, I’m proud to support this bipartisan legislation and I’ll be pushing to get it added to the Farm Bill.”

“As the rural hospital closure crisis and the opioid epidemic escalate in rural America, we need to seek new ways to help struggling rural economies and increase opportunities for rural patients and providers,” said Alan Morgan, CEO, National Rural Health Association. “USDA has experience with working to keep struggling hospitals from closing and is the home to a number of programs critical in providing telehealth services and other rural health resources. Now more than ever, we need a Rural Health Liaison at the USDA to ensure better coordination and streamlining of rural health programs.”

“Farming and ranching families face unique barriers to accessing affordable, quality health care,” said Roger Johnson, President, National Farmers Union. “The Farm Bill is a key opportunity to address many of these challenges. A Rural Health Liaison would improve coordination between USDA and HHS to better leverage existing resources and develop targeted responses for the health care needs of family farmers, ranchers and their communities. Farmers Union applauds Sens. Jones, Rounds and Smith for their leadership in this arena and urge the provision’s inclusion in the next Farm Bill.”

According to the Alabama Rural Health Association, 52 of Alabama’s 54 rural counties are facing primary care shortages. The state’s rural hospitals are also at risk and many are in immediate danger of closing. All of Alabama’s 54 rural counties are classified as dental shortage areas and  mental health care shortage areas for the delivery of service to the low-income population, and only 16 of the 54 counties provide obstetrical service. The RHLA would help to better coordinate the federal resources that are available to these health care providers.

Under the RHLA, the newly established Rural Health Liaison would:

  • Consult with HHS on rural health issues and improve communication with all federal agencies;
  • Provide expertise on rural health care issues;
  • Lead and coordinate strategic planning on rural health activities within the USDA; and,
  • Advocate on behalf of the health care and relevant infrastructure needs in rural areas.

For more information, read a brief summary of the legislation here.

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