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Planting seeds for the future of rural health

NRHA president outlines three-year strategic plan

Tommy Barnhart

Tommy Barnhart


Cultivating a vibrant and healthy rural America starts with ideas and innovation — but it also takes strength in numbers and careful planning to make it happen. The National Rural Health Association Board of Directors approved a strategic plan at the beginning of 2018, outlining goals and direction for the association over the next three years. Although goals and tactics continually evolve to meet the demands of a dynamic political and health care landscape, the association’s mission remains the same: to provide leadership on rural health issues through advocacy, communications, education, and research. This strategic plan provides guidance for growing NRHA’s influence in shaping rural health policy and driving solutions to improve the lives of 62 million rural Americans.

“Our mission is all-encompassing and characterizes what the organization is about,” says NRHA President Tommy Barnhart, who spent his career as a hospital CFO, health care consultant, and advocate for rural health. As NRHA president, Barnhart is responsible for providing leadership and direction, guiding the board of trustees, and working with NRHA staff in their advocacy, policy development, membership, education, communications, and infrastructure efforts.

Advocating for rural health policy

Beyond just having a seat at the table, NRHA members play an active role in leading the national conversation, representing rural interests, and shaping policy that works for rural America. “We’re focused on continuing to champion rural transformation through advocacy and policy development,” Barnhart explains. “In order to drive the changes we need in rural health policy, NRHA needs to be on the leadership front of those new initiatives — and it takes both guidance and funding to do that, and getting traction with legislation and regulation at the federal, state, and local levels continues to be the greatest challenge.”

As part of NRHA’s strategic plan, the association’s Rural Health Congress is developing a policy platform focused on social determinants of health including education, economy, and human services. “Our work is centered on protecting the rural health safety net across the country,” Barnhart says.

Barnhart is particularly interested in working toward new models of health care delivery and payment. He points to demonstration projects like the Kansas Hospital Association model and the Pennsylvania Global Budget, which incentivize all payers (Medicare, Medicaid, and commercial payers) to support hospitals in serving the needs of local communities.

“There’s a direct correlation between the wealth of a community and its health status. If we want a chance at transforming the health status of rural communities, we have to improve economic conditions and social services,” Barnhart explains.

Reaching a larger audience

The key to building momentum for advocacy and policy development is an empowered, diverse, and growing membership base. “Our membership looks to us to represent their interests in rural health care, and we need to maintain that. At the same time, we also need to branch out and increase membership with nontraditional constituencies such as agri-business, housing, economic development, education, and food insecurity,” Barnhart says.

A key goal moving forward is to reach more people and institutions connected to rural health — such as public health, water safety, social services, community organizers, state regulators, and behavioral health and substance abuse disorder professionals. “The membership piece is critical because it brings new partners to the table so we can recognize all facets of what it takes to make a healthy population,” Barnhart says.

Education as a springboard

Research and education can transform the way we approach rural health care. “It’s through education and conferences that we translate research into practice and empower those on the ground in rural areas with tools and resources,” Barnhart explains.

NRHA is building coalitions that will transform how the association and its members deliver their message, partnering with universities, human service organizations, and other entities to create a stronger voice for rural health. “As always, we’re seeking new ways to connect members with valuable information and resources through ongoing communication efforts,” Barnhart says.

In addition, NRHA has made an investment in technology to enhance its database and incorporate a new registration system for meetings. “All of this provides efficiency so we can better serve the needs of our members now and in the future,” Barnhart says.

Understanding global perspectives

Forging connections between rural communities includes sharing experiences with rural advocates around the world. “As NRHA continues to evolve, we are looking at rural health initiatives with a more global view,” Barnhart says. NRHA leaders attended the 2018 World Rural Health Conference in India, and NRHA will co-host the 2019 World Rural Health Conference along with the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

“There’s a lot we can learn from our counterparts around the world and how they meet the needs of their rural communities,” Barnhart says. “We’re looking forward to gaining new insights and hope to inspire innovative solutions back home.”

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