Wicker: Don’t Forget About Rural America

New Administration Should Pursue Greater Access to Health Care, Broadband

February 20, 2017

The Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress are committed to putting Americans back to work and reforming our health-care system. New plans, however, should be shaped with our rural communities in mind. As Mississippians know, rural areas have unique challenges and needs that may not always be addressed when government policies are applied in broad strokes.

I have urged my colleagues and members of the new Administration to support policymaking that pays attention to the most remote and rural parts of our country. For example, living in a rural area should not stand in the way of receiving first-rate health care. As I recently wrote to new Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, “Health care is constantly evolving in our country, and rural providers, patients, and facilities need reliable partners at all levels in order to be successful.” Forty other Senators joined me in sending this letter, reiterating the importance of high-quality health care that is truly accessible to all Americans, no matter where they live.

Rural Hospitals Are Key

How might we promote this success? One way is to recognize the value of rural hospitals in providing life-saving services, not to mention local jobs. Dozens of these hospitals have closed their doors in recent years, and hundreds more could join them. When these facilities close, it can be even more difficult for patients to find a health-care provider, forcing them to drive miles from home to receive care. Removing costly regulations can help direct resources where they are needed most.

Encouraging advancements have already emerged to improve rural health care, including innovative developments in telehealth and remote patient monitoring. These groundbreaking technologies can help Mississippians in need of emergency services or routine care. We should continue to build on these successes.

Broadband Creates Jobs

Like health care, high-speed mobile broadband is important to a community’s vitality and economic growth. As chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees telecommunications issues, I have remained focused on eliminating the digital divide between rural and urban areas. Mobile broadband can open a number of doors for new jobs, along with improvements in education and public safety. In Mississippi, access to reliable broadband can give patients telehealth options and enable our farmers to maximize their crop yields through precision agriculture. Earlier this month, I wrote to Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, reiterating the need to make mobile broadband accessible to all Americans. You shouldn’t have to live in a city to benefit from the latest technology.

Of course, mobile broadband is not the only driver of economic development. Like other infrastructure upgrades, safe drinking water and wastewater systems can also significantly impact quality of life in both urban and rural areas. Environmental Protection Agency regulations can be excessively burdensome for smaller localities. I look forward to introducing legislation that would authorize competitive grants to support public wastewater utilities in need of technical assistance. This is similar to my legislation that became law in December 2015 for drinking water systems.

Our country’s long-term success is tied to the well-being of all Americans, from coast to coast and all the cities and small towns in between. I am hopeful that the Administration continues to empower rural communities to thrive.