Farm Bill Conference Begins

Today, the Senate and House Joint Conference Committee begins meetings to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate Farm Bills passed early this summer. The Farm Bill includes programs critical to rural communities. We have worked to ensure that Congress take steps forward to ensure the strong and healthy future of rural America. Spurring rural economic growth begins with rural hospitals, and subsequently, critical programs housed at the USDA and authorized through the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill and Rural Health
In rural America, health care is the center of the community and an integral piece of the economy. Rural providers create and foster a sustainable and livable environment for rural Americans, and without health care, without a hospital, a rural community will crumble. As John Henderson, CEO of Childress Regional Hospital in Texas explains, “Hospitals, schools, churches. It’s the three-legged stool. If one of those falls down, you don’t have a town.” This year, the House recognized the important role of health care in rural areas by including an entire Rural Health section under the Rural Development Title of the bill, and we hope to see this included in the final draft of the legislation.

Rural Hospitals and USDA Programs
The USDA has the experience and expertise to help struggling rural hospitals negotiate, reorganize, and revitalize. Rural hospitals are an essential pillar of their communities and are necessary to create the economic growth that is direly needed in rural communities. No business wants to relocate to a community that does not have an emergency room to care for an employee injured at work or a place for a young worker to deliver a baby or take a sick child.

As 87 rural hospitals have closed since 2010 and yet another rural hospital has announced that it will close its doors before the end of this year, preserving the future of these facilities is crucial. Rep. Jodey Arrington introduced an amendment, which was included in the House’s bill, that would allow struggling rural hospitals to keep their doors open to better utilize the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Business and Industry and Community Facilities Loan Programs. We are working to ensure that Members of the Conference Committee include this in the final bill. Allowing refinancing of debt obligations through the Business and Industry and Community Facilities Loan Programs supports communities in improving the financial position of the hospital to maintain necessary local access to care in rural communities.

Addressing the Opioid Crisis Through USDA
Additionally, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (IL-17) introduced the Addiction Recovery for Rural Communities (ARRC) Act with Congressman Rick Crawford (AR-01), Roger Marshall (KS-01) and Dwight Evans (PA-02) – all members of the House Agriculture Committee. Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Pat Roberts (R-KS) also introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate.

The Addiction Recovery for Rural Communities Act would set aside at least 20% of Distance Learning and Telemedicine Program grant funding for substance abuse treatment. It would also prioritize USDA Community and Facilities Direct Loan and Grant applications concentrated on substance use disorder prevention, treatment and recovery services, and would prioritize USDA Rural Health and Safety Education grant funding for applicants seeking to improve education and outreach substance use disorder issues. We ask that the Agriculture Committee ensure that all of these key provisions are included in the final 2018 Farm Bill, as they were included in the Senate’s version of the bill.

Rural Health Liaison
In February, Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (IL-17) and Congressman Doug LaMalfa (CA-01) introduced a bipartisan bill that would designate a Rural Health Liaison at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who will act as a direct point of contact at the USDA for questions related to health care in rural communities and for the streamlining of rural health programs. Senators Doug Jones (D-AL), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Tina Smith (D-MN) also introduced this legislation, which was included in the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill as a manager’s amendment.

We would like to see the creation of this position at USDA included in the final 2018 Farm Bill to improve the coordination of rural health programs at the USDA and HHS. 

The Debate Continues
The Rural Development title exists to encourage growth and vitality of rural communities. This title is the home of programs crucial to rural Americans and rural health. As Conference begins on the 2018 Farm Bill, we have asked all Conferees to support opportunities for rural patients and providers in this critical legislation.

We are continuing to fight for rural health programs in the Farm Bill and we will update NRHA Members on the blog and on Twitter as this discussion continues.

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