Merkley, McEachin Introduce Bicameral Bill to Address Rural Health Inequities

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley and Congressman A. Donald McEachin (D-VA-04), along with U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-MN), today introduced the Rural Health Equity Act in both the Senate and House. This legislation would establish a new Office of Rural Health within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and help to address the unique health care challenges and inequities faced by rural communities across America.

“I hold a town hall in each of Oregon’s counties each year, and in so many of our counties I hear time and again about the unique challenges of providing and accessing health care in a rural community,” said Merkley. “Folks living in rural communities deserve national policy makers attention to the problems they face. It’s time to move beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to tackling our national health challenges and ensure that we are making progress on improving health disparities faced specifically by rural Americans.”

“Millions of Americans living in rural areas throughout the country face challenges in accessing health care services and unique threats to their health and well-being,” said Rep. McEachin (VA-04). “Geographic constraints, higher safety and environmental risks, and a lack of inclusive and culturally-competent services can lead to serious disparities in public health outcomes for rural Americans. Unfortunately, these issues have been further exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. That is why I am proud to introduce the Rural Health Equity Act, alongside Senator Merkley, to address long-standing inequities in our nation’s health care system. This bicameral legislation is an important, commonsense policy solution to protect the interests of rural residents, both in the Commonwealth and throughout the nation, and promote better health outcomes for all.”  

Despite the millions of Americans living and working in rural areas, and the health disparities and challenges faced by rural populations, no dedicated rural health office currently exists within the CDC to identify and address these challenges. Rural Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke than their urban counterparts. Meanwhile, residents of these areas can also face limited access to specialty medical care and exposures to additional environmental hazards. Communities of color, veterans, and LGBTQ+ individuals may also face limited access to culturally competent and inclusive health care and services.

The Rural Health Equity Act would establish an Office of Rural Health within the CDC. Specifically, this office would be tasked with:

  • Identifying and improving health disparities and challenges faced by rural communities;
  • Serving as the primary point of contact within the CDC on matters pertaining to rural health, and coordinating within the agency to develop and promulgate policies and programs to improve health care and services for rural populations;
  • Conducting, coordinating, promoting, and disseminating research regarding public health issues impacting rural populations, including rural minority and LGBTQ+ populations; and
  • Administering grants and contracts to provide technical assistance to support activities related to improving health and health care in rural areas.

The Rural Health Equity Act is endorsed by the National Rural Health Association, Oregon Primary Care Association, Oregon Office of Rural Health, and the Oregon Rural Health Association Board.

“The National Rural Health Association (NRHA) applauds Senator Merkley and Representative McEachin for introducing the Rural Health Equity Act,” said Alan Morgan, Chief Executive Officer of the National Rural Health Association. “In recent years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has expanded its focus on the health and disparities faced by the more-than-60 million Americans who reside in rural areas and their declining life expectancies when compared with urban counterparts. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the structural barriers facing rural Americans have become increasingly evident, and has exacerbated the need for rural representation within the CDC. NRHA believes the creation of an Office of Rural Health within the CDC will play a pivotal role in supporting rural public health agencies as they serve their communities through the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and as they prepare for future public health crises.”

“The recent public health emergency has shown how important it is for the CDC to do better outreach and coordination with and for our rural communities,” said Robert Duehmig, Interim Director, Oregon Office of Rural Health. “The Rural Health Equity Act will give the CDC a rural point of contact that can work with rural partners to get the right information and services to rural communities and improve public health.” 

“Oregon Primary Care Association (OPCA) supports the proposed federal bill creating an Office of Rural Health in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),” said Danielle Sobel, Senior Director of Policy and Government Affairs, OPCA. “The complexities and barriers to rural health care is often overlooked or misunderstood; this legislation provides a meaningful and purposeful vehicle for addressing rural health care with the focus of a dedicated staff and resources within the CDC. Seventy-five percent of Oregon’s community health center serve rural and frontier patients, we look forward to the fruits of this legislation.”