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Cagle, who founded CagleCartoons.com in 2001, is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and the National Cartoonists Society Fou…

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Cagle, who founded CagleCartoons.com in 2001, is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and the National Cartoonists Society Fou…

contributed

Cagle, who founded CagleCartoons.com in 2001, is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and the National Cartoonists Society Fou…

contributed

Cagle, who founded CagleCartoons.com in 2001, is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and the National Cartoonists Society Fou…

contributed
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Cagle, who founded CagleCartoons.com in 2001, is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society and the National Cartoonists Society Fou…

An untenable situation has been simmering for decades in rural America. With the emergence of COVID-19, it threatens to boil over.

This virus has begun to ravage our rural communities. In the Congressional District I serve, Warren County has the fifth-highest number of cases per capita within Illinois, despite its population of roughly 17,000. In Stephenson County, population of 44,000, the case rate doubles every 3.5 days.

COVID-19 knows no borders and disregards the term “rural-urban divide.” It simply attacks. And right now, our rural communities face unique health care challenges that have the potential to further exacerbate the impact of the virus.

The district I serve represents the heart of rural America. Spanning 14 counties and 7,000-square miles across northwest and central Illinois, 85% of our towns are 5,000 people or fewer, while 60% are 1,000 people or fewer. Many of our communities face a shortage of health care access, longer wait times for care and other challenges.

Drive times to see a doctor can be a burden. Shortages of health care specialists can mean entire communities have reduced access to care.

Many rural hospitals have few beds and patient-to-clinician ratios are concerning. In 2017, Henderson County, Illinois, had a patient-to-clinician ratio of nearly 7,000 patients per provider. Compare that to Cook County – the Chicago area - which has a patient-to-clinician ratio of 1,200 to one.

And while necessary, the suspension of elective surgeries has meant cutting off critical hospital income used to keep a tight operating budget afloat.

That income loss has meant layoffs -- I heard from one rural hospital in my district that has been forced to furlough medical personnel. People who are furloughed will now struggle to make ends meet.

A shortage of medical specialists, stressed patient-to-clinician ratios and a bleeding bottom line -- this is the current situation many rural hospitals find themselves in.

These problems are the result of decades of underinvesting in rural health care, but they’re coming to a devastating head.

Last year, I introduced the bipartisan Rural America Health Corps Act alongside Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Reps. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and David Kustoff, R-Tenn. To encourage America’s doctors, nurse practitioners to bring their services to rural areas, my bill would create a $25 million program to offer student loan repayment, expand Health Corps placements and provide funding to assist with recruitment and retention.

I introduced the Social Determinants Accelerator Act to address the social factors that can impact our ability to lead healthy lives. It would provide up to $25 million in grants, requiring that at least 20% of these grants be awarded to rural communities.

Finally, I partnered with Reps. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and Susan Wild, D-Penn., to introduce legislation that would open a special COVID-19 enrollment period under the Affordable Care Act. This bill would remove barriers to health care and allow more people to become covered as we all grapple with the current crisis.

Those are my three steps to strengthen America’s rural public health.

It is critical we strengthen our health care infrastructure and address vulnerabilities within the very system meant to serve people.

Last week, I raised the issue of rural health with former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Tom Freiden at an Appropriations Committee hearing. He spoke about working to prevent future public health disasters.

His opener noted, “We’re just at the beginning of this pandemic.”

If there’s one lesson we have learned from this virus, it’s that the health of our nation depends on the health of our people. Now is the time to invest in our rural health.