A new initiative has been launched in the middle of the country to address health care challenges in rural areas. Heartland Forward, a nonpartisan organization focused on practical policies for improving life in heartland states, has created the Heartland Health Caucus. This initiative brings together policymakers from Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee to collaborate on solutions to health care problems that are affecting rural regions.
The announcement was made at the annual Heartland Summit in Bentonville, Arkansas, on Nov. 8. The Heartland Summit is hosted by the Walton Family Foundation, which provides funding for Heartland Forward. The Heartland Health Caucus is unique in that it is nonpartisan, with the goal of fostering collaboration between policymakers from both major political parties.
The six states involved in the initiative are mostly Republican-dominated, with the exception of Kentucky and Kansas, which have Democratic governors. The inaugural meeting of the caucus brought together 19 state lawmakers, policy aides, and executive branch officials from both parties. The focus of the first meeting was on addressing health care workforce shortages, maternal health, and mental health, as well as exploring the use of telemedicine and telehealth to tackle these challenges.
The overall atmosphere of the meetings was positive, with a strong emphasis on sharing policy knowledge and collaborating to find solutions. The participants were eager to discuss their experiences and learn from each other in order to improve health care access in their respective states.
While expanding Medicaid with federal funds provided under the Affordable Care Act is often seen as a way to improve rural health care systems, the Heartland Health Caucus is focusing on reducing the underlying cost of care, rather than on Medicaid expansion. Heartland Forward has taken this approach based on research conducted in the six heartland states, which revealed major disparities in access to doctors, pharmacists, and trauma center hospitals between urban, suburban, and rural counties.
The report, titled “Health Care Access in the Heartland,” found that rural counties in the six states face significant challenges, with nearly 80% of residents living in “pharmacy deserts,” meaning they are more than 15 minutes away from the nearest pharmacy. This is compared to 40.7% of urban county residents and 42.2% of suburban county residents. The report highlights the urgent need to address these disparities and improve access to health care services in rural areas.
The convening of the Heartland Health Caucus by Heartland Forward marks an important step toward addressing the health care challenges faced by rural communities. By bringing together policymakers from multiple states and political parties, the initiative aims to foster collaboration and develop practical solutions to improve health care access and affordability in the heartland.