Move intended to boost medical, mental, dental health in rural areas

McDONOUGH COUNTY -- Access to health care providers continues to be an issue for Americans living in rural areas around the country. As members of Congress work through the new budget process, health care has been one of the priorities being addressed.
Many professionals are enticed to practice medicine or provide services in areas of higher population density under the belief there is a greater pool of higher-income residents. Those living in rural areas often exhibit lower income. Medical education and training debt coupled with the cost of malpractice insurance can be major factors when deciding where to establish a practice.
But one little-known government entity offers scholarships and loan repayment programs to assist medical professionals willing to start their careers by serving rural residents. The National Health Service Corps, which is under the Health Resources & Services Administration, awards scholarship and loan repayment to primary care providers in a number of disciplines. The organization has been active since 1972. Since that time, more than 50,000 primary care medical, dental and mental/behavioral health professionals have served in rural communities as part of the corps' program. As of 2017 figures, 11.4 million people have received care from corps-enrolled practitioners.
"The National Health Service Corps can offer a lifeline by providing loan repayment to professionals who agree to serve in certain underserved areas," stated A.J. Wilhelmi, president and CEO of Illinois Health and Hospital Association. "We desperately need more primary care providers in rural America," 17th District Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, stated Wednesday on Facebook. "That's why I pushed for a $15 million increase in funding for the National Health Service Corps that will help us recruit doctors into the communities that need it most."
The Health Service Corps' parent organization HRSA identifies McDonough County as being a low income area qualifying as an official Health Professional Shortage Area. The county is ranked at 16 on the scale of 0-26. The higher the number, the greater priority of the Health Service Corps in finding primary care or other medical professionals to provide services in that area. McDonough County first received the designation of a shortage area in 2001 and was recently updated in 2017. The county's mental health availability is ranked at 11 out of a possible high of 26, and the county's dental health availability is ranked at 17.
The HRSA identifies shortage areas when state health organizations collect data and provide it to the federal agency. Illinois Department of Public Health's Center for Rural Health staff work with local care providers to determine level of available service in an area. Shortage area designation allows some providers to participate in various state and federal programs such as the Health Service Corps. Rural health clinic programs area also available as are Federally Qualified Health Centers, which are eligible for grants.
A report issued in October 2018 titled "The State of Rural Health in Illinois: Great Challenges and a Path Forward," reinforces the disparity in the number of providers in rural areas versus urban areas. The reports was issued by the Illinois Rural Health Summit Planning Committee and spearheaded by Southern Illinois University School of Medicine. The report indicates the state average is 80.7 primary care physicians per 100,000 people. Large urban counties average 87.1 physicians. Other urban counties average 76.7. Rural counties average 45.5. The numbers behind psychiatrists are even more staggering in an era where many are pointing to a mental health crisis nationwide. The state average indicates there are 10.5 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. Large urban counties average 12.6. Other urban counties average seven. Rural counties average less than two.
According to the study, more than 30 percent of rural hospitals have primary care physician shortages and more than 90 percent have a mental health service shortage.
The study can be read online in PDF form at: https://bit.ly/2JrqkkS

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