Improving rural healthcare by supporting agriculture

Before the pandemic, rural hospitals were already in crisis mode. One hundred and twenty of them have shut down in the last decade, often in the most vulnerable communities, leaving people without access to any kind of medical care.

A non-partisan forum called “The Aspen Institute” is working with policy leaders to find healthcare solutions.

In Williamson, West Virginia, the local health and wellness center is hoping to prevent disease by investing in agricultural and local food programs, including a farmers market, a mobile market, a community garden, and a produce subscription service.

According to Maria Arnot, a former director of the community ag program, “These projects really increase food security to at risk populations but they also create economic diversification. The Williamson farmers market project supports 25 local farmers and the sales are typically over $75,000 annually and that’s just over the summer months.”

Arnot says that the clinic is also embracing the idea of “prescription veggies” for high risk patients.

“The community health workers that were visiting the homes of the high risk diabetic were provided a voucher that they could spend either at the farmers market or to be used on the “Farm Fresh to You” community supported agriculture program, so it was basically a financial incentive to eat healthy that was prescribed by their physicians,” she states.

Special attention is also given to low income families facing higher levels of food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic.

“We have a really large SNAP Stretch program that is supported by state and federal funders, and if a customer makes a purchase with their SNAP card we’re able to match it,” she explains. “So, if they were buying the Pull-Up for Produce bag, they were essentially getting it for 50 percent off.”

While local clinics work to improve general health, policy leaders are also working to address rural hospital closures.

University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute Professor, Lawrence Brown says that states who chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act are missing out on an important revenue stream for rural hospitals.

“Many of those hospital closures are concentrated in the deep south, and we have to think that these are counties that opted against taking the Medicaid expansion related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” Laurence states. “So, they aren’t receiving the additional funding that came with that expansion.”

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case to overturn the Affordable Care Act. After the session, President-elect Joe Biden said that his administration will be focused on improving the healthcare system no matter the outcome of the trial.

Biden states, “My transition team will soon be starting its work to flesh out the details so we can hit the ground running, tackling costs, increasing access, lowering the price of prescription drugs.”

In his rural health plan, Biden has also called for more access to telehealth services, and funding for transportation to help rural residents travel to health centers and hospitals.