President Joe Biden met with business leaders to discuss a coronavirus relief package. Republicans are attacking the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package dubbed as American Rescue Plan as too costly, economically damaging and overtly partisan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

President Joe Biden will focus on rural healthcare, including making sure rural hospitals stay open, staffers said in a briefing last week. 

During a briefing from White House staffers and advisors, members of the rural health community were given insight into Biden’s priorities for rural health moving forward including Covid relief, vaccination access, and what rural communities need in terms of health care after the pandemic is over. 

Catherine Oakar, Special Assistant to the President for Community, Public Health, and Disparities, said President Joe Biden is focused on rural American communities and making sure they thrive post-pandemic. 

Specifically, Oakar said, Biden is concerned about protecting rural hospitals and in expanding access to hospitals in rural areas in general. 

Oakar highlighted a recently announced push by the Biden administration to get vaccines to federally qualified health centers (FQHC) in an effort to serve particularly hard-to-reach populations. In order to qualify as an FQHC, the center must serve an underserved area or population like rural areas, among other requirements. 

The administration hopes to get vaccines to 250 FQHCs within the next few weeks, ensuring that one FQHC in every state will get doses of the vaccine. These vaccines will be in addition to the jurisdiction’s weekly allocations. 

Getting vaccines out to rural populations, she said, was important because rural communities are seeing a higher mortality rate due to Covid-19. 

Biden’s American Rescue Plan would also provide $160 billion to provide supplies, emergency response, testing, and public health workforce to communities, including those in rural areas to stop the spread of Covid-19, Oakar said. The plan would fund 100,000 community healthcare workers, she said, and work towards keeping those workers in rural communities. 

“We want to leverage those healthcare workers and start thinking after the pandemic is over. We want to be thinking about the months and years to come beyond Covid-19,” she said. 

The administration would also be looking to capitalize on the boom in telehealth and working towards making some of the best parts of telehealth that have come out of the Covid-19 pandemic permanent. 

Additionally, the administration would be working to expand Medicaid into the 12 states that haven’t yet done so, she said, and to build on the Affordable Care Act.

Rural health advocates on the call had plenty of advice for the administration. From reminders that telehealth is useless if you don’t have broadband to recommending using large animal veterinarians as trusted sources of information, advocates provided the staffers with plenty of insight. 

Laurel Stine, with the American Psychological Association, said that while the emergence of telehealth has been a great way for rural residents to access care, the administration should keep in mind that there needs to be audio-only access to medical care. While telehealth is not usable for all mental health services, she said, many are and can help those in need.

“Audio-only is a viable option for those who may not have access to smart phones, or who may have a smart phone and not know how to use it, or don’t have access to stable broadband, or even those who have used up all their minutes,” Stine said. “We knew there was a mental health crisis before the pandemic, and we know that we’re going to continue to have issues after the pandemic is over.”

Michael Daniels, with Land o’Lakes Inc. said that telehealth services are a “fantastic resource,” but not of much use to rural residents without access to broadband. 

Oakar said that Biden is focused on rural broadband as part of his infrastructure investment. 

And John Eich, director of the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health said that getting rural residents to get the vaccine needs a new approach. 

“People aren’t listening to the news anymore. They’re starting to listen more to acquaintances,” he said. “The administration need to think about (rural residents’) trust influencers.” 

Eich suggested using large animal veterinarians, who are already visiting rural farmers, as well as working with the faith community to help get the message out about the importance of getting the vaccine. 

Marvin Figueroa, Director of Intergovernmental and External Affairs with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that working to get trusted influencers to get messages out to communities was something the department was also focusing on. 

William McIntee, Associate Director for Public Engagement, said the Biden administration would not forget rural America. 

“A commitment to rural health was made by the Biden campaign and we intend to keep it,” he said. “We are focused on the American Rescue Plan right now and are working on getting it over the finish line. Once we get through the APR, we’re going to start work on all the issues you’ve raised here.”