October 21, 2009

Udall: Health Reform Must Help Rural Americans

Speech is Fourth in a Series on Health Care by Senate's Freshman Class

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall, D-NM, and eight of his fellow freshman senators took to the floor of the U.S. Senate today for the fourth in a series of speeches to highlight the need for health insurance reform. This week the senators used their remarks to discuss how reform will benefit a wide variety of individuals and groups across America.

Udall used his remarks to illustrate why health insurance reform is important to rural Americans, who are more likely to be uninsured than their urban counterparts, have higher rates of chronic disease and often must travel hundreds of miles to receive medical care.

“We will never achieve true reform in our country if we don’t address the very real health care challenges facing rural Americans from the deserts of New Mexico to the mountains of Maine and everywhere in between,” Udall said.



The following is Senator Udall’s speech as delivered:

“This is the fourth time that the Senate’s freshman class has gathered on the Floor to talk about health reform. Already, we’ve talked about why maintaining the status quo isn’t an option. We’ve talked about how reform will contain costs and dispelled the myths about reform. And we’ve talked about how reform will mean many things to many different people.

“What I’d like to talk about today is what reform will mean for rural New Mexicans.

“Our rural areas are the backbone of America. It’s where we grow our food. It’s where the values and traditions that make our country unique continue to thrive. It’s where the potential for a clean energy future grows brighter every day. Unfortunately, our rural areas are also places where the disparities in America’s health care system are most startling.

“It shouldn’t matter whether you live in a vast metropolis like New York City or a frontier town in New Mexico. All Americans – regardless of where we choose to call home – deserve access to quality, affordable health care. But the reality is that, right now, where you live does have a big impact on whether you have access to quality, affordable coverage.

“Americans living in rural areas are more likely to be uninsured. And if they do have insurance, it can be very difficult to find a doctor. As a result, rural Americans end up getting sicker. They have higher rates of chronic disease. And they’re often forced to travel hundreds of miles for preventive or emergency care, if they’re able to find any at all.

“I’ve seen these disparities firsthand, as a member of the other chamber and now Senator for one of the most rural states in the nation. Geographically, New Mexico is the fifth-largest state in the country – with more than 120,000 square miles of some of the most beautiful land that God created. Of the two million people who call New Mexico home, about 700,000 live in rural areas. Several places in New Mexico are so sparsely populated that they’re classified as ‘frontier’ areas – with less than six people per square mile.

“Many of New Mexico’s rural residents are farmers and ranchers and may their own businesses. Their only access to health insurance is often through the individual market – where coverage can be extremely expensive, difficult to obtain, and nowhere near as comprehensive. As a result, rural Americans pay nearly half of their health insurance costs out of pocket. And one-in-five farmers lives in medical debt.

“With health reform, we must ensure that America’s farmers and ranchers – like their small business counterparts in more urban areas –have more affordable choices for coverage.

“I believe the best way for making this happen is through a health insurance exchange that includes a strong public option. Inserting more choice into the market would keep insurers honest and allow consumers to compare plans and prices and decide what works best for them.

“With health reform, we must also address the growing doctor shortage in rural America. In my state, for example, 30 of 33 counties are categorized as ‘medically underserved.’ Americans should not have to travel hundreds of miles for health care. Whether it’s life-saving treatment for a heart attack or a basic preventive service like a mammogram, people are more likely to get the help they need, when they need it, if the services are close to home.

“Through incentives like low-interest student loans, loan repayment programs and scholarships for students and mid-career professionals, we can encourage more doctors and nurses and specialists to establish and grow their medical careers in rural America.

“Finally, with health reform, we must better support rural hospitals that serve large numbers of low-income and uninsured patients. This could be through initiatives like expanded drug discount programs, increased Medicare payment caps for rural health clinics, increased National Health Service Corps doctors, and expanded demonstration programs to test reasonable cost reimbursement for small rural hospitals.

“We will never achieve true reform in our country if we don’t address the very real health care challenges facing rural Americans from the deserts of New Mexico to the mountains of Maine and everywhere in between. The improvements I’ve outlined are a good start, but there is more left to do – and I plan on talking more about how we can accomplish this in the coming weeks.

“Mr. President, we’ve traveled a long way over the past few months. I applaud my fellow freshmen Senators for standing up each week and making sure their voices are heard in this process. I believe, working together, that we can create a system where all people can find and afford quality health insurance that provides the care they need. We can guarantee quality, affordable health insurance to every American. And we must do that. Thank you.”