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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has released the rural action plan, the first department-wide assessment of rural healthcare efforts in 18 years.

According to a news release, the plan will serve as a roadmap for the department to strengthen coordination among departments in order to better serve rural communities across the country.

“Growing up in rural Maryland, I saw firsthand some of the challenges faced by rural healthcare providers and patients,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar says in the release.“Under President Trump, we have invested unprecedented time and resources transforming healthcare for the forgotten men and women of rural America. The Rural Action Plan identifies key, tangible areas where HHS agencies can soon make a real difference in the health outcomes of millions of Americans.”

The plan examines the key challenges facing rural communities related to issues like emerging health disparities, chronic disease burden, high rates of maternal mortality, and limited access to mental health services. It includes a four-point strategy to transform rural health and human services.

The first point of the plan is to build a sustainable health and human services model for rural communities. It includes actions such as:

  • Funding the Rural Healthcare Providers Transition Project, a new program to provide support for hospitals and rural health clinics transitioning to value-based models.
  • Expanding the Community Health Aide Program, which provides education and training of tribal community health providers to increase access to quality health care, health promotion and disease prevention services.
  • Funding the Integrated Rural Community Care project to connect federally qualified health centers with rural hospitals to better coordinate preventive, primary and emergency health care.

The second is to leverage technology and innovation, and includes:

  1. Supporting a new HHS Health Challenge to leverage technology to improve screening and management of post-partum depression for rural women.
  2. Providing more than $8 million in grant funding for the Telehealth Network Grant Program to provide emergency care consults via telehealth to rural providers without emergency care specialists.
  3. Developing new flexibility for Medicare Advantage (MA) plans to improve access to managed care options in rural areas through changes in network adequacy assessments for MA plans and to take into account the impact of telehealth providers in contracted networks.

The third is to focus on preventing disease and mortality, and includes:

  1. Creating the Healthy Rural Hometown Initiative, a new initiative to identify strategies to address the growing rural disparities related to the five leading causes of avoidable death, including stroke, heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease and injury/substance use.
  2. Investing over $2 million in additional funding for rural cancer control grants with a focus on geographically underserved rural areas with deep and/or persistent poverty, building on a multi-year research effort to increase prevention efforts and enhance cancer treatment efforts in rural communities.
  3. Investing more than $2 million in funding in 2020 as part of a four-year $8 million project to identify evidence-based interventions that can reduce health risks faced by rural Americans.

The final point is increasing rural access to care, and includes:

  1. Issuing a new policy brief examining the workforce shortage challenges state-based licensure restrictions create for rural residents by failing to let health care clinicians practice to the full extent of their training.
  2. Investing $5 million in FY 2020 to recruit and train EMS personnel in rural areas.
  3. Awarding $8.25 million to 11 communities who develop new rural residency programs through the Rural Residency Planning and Development Program.

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