More coronavirus tests, broadband needed in rural America, say Senate Democrats

Covid-19 cases have been reported in more than two-thirds of rural counties, said a report by Senate Democrats, who called for nationwide rapid-response testing for the coronavirus and for expansion of high-speed internet to maintain commerce and healthcare in rural areas. The report, which also called for “hazard pay” for frontline workers, was issued a few hours before the House passed a $484 billion coronavirus relief bill on Thursday.

The bulk of the $484 billion would be funneled into small businesses, but $75 billion would go to hospitals and $25 billion to testing equipment. The legislation was the fourth bill since early March to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying economic slowdown. Representatives passed the bill 388-5 and sent it to the White House.

“We are seeing a lot more rural [coronavirus] cases,” Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC), said during a teleconference. “There are a lot of extra challenges to our hospitals trying to survive.”

Rural Americans tend to be older, poorer, and sicker than their counterparts in the rest of the country. “It is estimated that rural areas might see peaks of the virus after the worst has passed through larger cities,” said the Democrats’ report. “Under-resourced health systems, disproportionate rates of poverty and food insecurity, limited internet access, and economies largely built on essential industries and services leave rural communities at a heightened risk when it comes to fighting the virus.”

Deployment of a rapid-response testing system would help local officials track the spread of the virus and more efficiently manage their healthcare resources, said the report. Expansion of broadband service would help rural areas utilize telemedicine and other high-tech methods to overcome distances between doctors and patients.

“Telehealth is wonderful if you have internet service. It is essential that we get it,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith said broadband “is a necessary utility of the 21st century.” Sen. Jon Tester, speaking on a scratchy cellphone connection from his Montana farm, joined Smith in saying rural America needs a stronger broadband network. According to the FCC, 26 percent of rural Americans do not have access to high-speed internet service.

The “heroes fund” proposed by Senate Democrats would augment the pay of workers at food processing plants. Stabenow said it would equal a $13-an-hour increase and would be paid for by the federal government.

Earlier this week, the Bipartisan Policy Center recommended congressional action to improve healthcare in rural areas. Among its recommendations was higher Medicare reimbursement rates for three years to improve the financial footing of rural hospitals. Some 126 rural hospitals have closed since 2010 and nearly 560 others are at risk financially, said the think tank. It suggested that some full-service rural hospitals could be converted to outpatient and emergency care centers, and that some rural health clinics could provide emergency service and be reimbursed at hospital rates if a local hospital has closed.

Other recommendations from the yearlong study were for federal health programs to pay higher reimbursements to rural hospitals to keep obstetrics services available, to expand telehealth services for patients, to provide tax credits to healthcare professionals who remain in rural areas, and to offer more visas to foreign-born medical graduates who agree to work in rural areas for three years.

The DPCC report, “Rural America and Covid-19,” is available here.

To read the BPC report, “Covid-19 Exposes Threat to America’s Broken Rural Health Care System,” or to watch a webinar on the report, click here.