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The Country Life Commission

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Rural Health Care Advocates Welcome New White House Rural Council

President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tour a Missouri farm, in April 2010.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

By Robin Pam

Teddy Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission released its report on the state of rural America in 1909, highlighting “deficiencies” in rural life that led to people leaving the country for the city. One hundred and two years later, the Obama administration announced the formation of a new White House Rural Council, on June 9.

When Roosevelt announced his Commission, it was ridiculed as a transparent bid for votes, and rural papers across the country poked fun at the president as “Teddy the Meddler.” There was also some mockery of President Obama’s council as well: But not everyone was in a mocking mood.

The National Rural Health Association applauded the announcement, saying in a blog post that it was “pleased the White House is focused on improving the lives of the 62 million Americans who call rural home.” When the Country Life Commission conducted its survey, more than 40 percent of Americans lived in rural areas.

“The White House Rural Council will focus on actions to better coordinate and streamline federal program efforts in rural America, and to better leverage federal investments. The collaboration will result in better programs and services in rural communities and will maximize the benefits of those programs,” wrote Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in apost on the White House Blog.

Vilsack is the council’s chief, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius is also a member. The council’s rural health goal is to “improve access to quality health care through expansion of health technology systems.” The council’s mandate also includes many other goals that will be critical to increasing access to quality health care for rural Americans. Expanding rural broadband access, increasing rural student enrollment in post-secondary education programs, and improving investment in critical infrastructure will all be critical to strengthening the rural health.

Telemedicine is seen as one way to bridge the gap between a growing shortage of physicians in rural areas and the needs of patients. With these systems primary care physicians in remote areas can connect with specialists to help diagnose and treat patients who would otherwise have to travel long distances to see a specialist. The health care reform law that passed last year included directives for pilot programs in telemedicine and other initiatives that could help improve care for rural residents.

Increasing rural students’ enrollment and completion of college is a first step toward addressing the shortage of primary care physicians in the rural West. There is a large body of academic research showing that a major factor in a physician’s decision to practice in a rural area is whether the person was raised in a rural area. Increasing the pipeline of college graduates from rural America could therefore increase the number of rural students who enroll in and complete medical school and return to rural practice.

Health is just one piece of the current challenges facing rural America. Ensuring that all cabinet departments are communicating about the interrelated challenges for health, education, the economy, the environment, and infrastructure in rural areas is a good first step toward finding comprehensive solutions.

Last modified Thu, 23 Jun, 2011 at 15:04