(Washington, D.C.)—Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) pushed for improved health care access in rural communities in Washington state and across the country. She welcomed Julie Petersen, a health administrator from Prosser, Washington, who testified about the state of health care in central Washington. About one in five Washington state residents live in rural areas. According to a recent study, by 2030, Washington state is expected to experience a shortage of 1,695 primary care doctors, underscoring the need to act sooner rather than later.
Senator Murray has a long history of championing rural health programs, and recently helped pass legislation that ensures that Washington’s six teaching health centers will continue to train primary care providers in rural areas around Spokane, Yakima, Toppenish, and the Puyallup Tribe. Senator Murray also strongly supports expanding access to health centers in rural communities across Washington state, and is pushing for the use of tools like telemedicine and workforce training programs to encourage more health care professionals to work in rural settings. She has introduced and supported legislation throughout her career to help rural communities access a broad range of high-quality health care services, including the Community Coalitions for Access and Quality Improvement Act, the National Trauma Center Stabilization Act, and the Health Care Safety Net Act.
Watch Senator Murray’s remarks from today’s hearing here.
Watch Julie Petersen’s testimony here.
Senator Murray’s remarks as prepared are below:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for calling this hearing on such an important topic.
I am very pleased to welcome all of our witnesses today, but I am particularly excited to welcome Julie Petersen.
Julie is the Chief Executive Officer of PMH Medical Center in Prosser, Washington.
Through her work at PMH and her leadership across our state, Julie is helping make sure that rural communities get the health care they need. Julie, thank you so much for being here and for all that you do.
Over the last few years, we’ve taken historic steps forward when it comes to making our health care system work better for families.
But I believe strongly that there is much more we can do to continue improving affordability, access, and quality, and to keep building a health care system that works for women, families, and seniors and puts their needs first.
In my home state of Washington, where about one out of every five residents lives in a rural area, a critical part of this work is making sure that families can find the doctors they need right in their own communities—regardless of whether they live in Prosser or Seattle. And of course, this is true in many other parts of the country as well.
This is a challenge I’ve been focused on for a long time. And I’m proud that Washington state is doing so much to tackle it head-on.
Washington state recently received a federal grant to explore the role of community paramedics in providing home follow up care.
This approach could reduce emergency room visits and help patients avoid the cost and inconvenience of leaving home to get care.
And I also hear repeatedly about the number of new patients getting coverage through the Affordable Care Act across our state. For example, a network of four rural health clinics in Whatcom County reported a 43 percent increase in patients last year.
That’s great news—but it also means we need to think carefully about how to make sure there are enough doctors and other health care providers to treat all the patients.
So I’m glad to have the opportunity today to discuss investments we need to make if we want to build on this kind of progress.
The agreement the President recently signed into law to fix the broken SGR system took important steps to support access to health care in rural areas.
It included funding for health centers and the National Health Service Corps, each of which play a critical role in expanding access to primary care for struggling families—especially in rural areas.
The SGR legislation also extended funding for teaching health center residencies. My home state of Washington was a leader in setting up these training programs.
And now, primary care providers are being trained in communities with a shortage of health care providers, from Spokane to Yakima, to Toppenish, to the Puyallup Tribe.
We know that training in rural areas is critical to keeping providers with an interest in rural practice in high-need communities.
I’m pleased we were able to agree in a bipartisan way to sustain these investments, and I hope we’ll be able to do even more going forward. I’m also pleased that the President’s budget maintains investments in other key programs that support rural health.
The 340B drug pricing program, for example, provides outpatient drugs to eligible health care providers at lower cost.
Twenty-six out of my state’s thirty-nine critical access hospitals—which provide crucial support to rural communities—participate in this program. Similarly, the budget continues to support enhanced payment for rural health clinics and community health centers.
In my home state and many others these facilities help make sure that when, for example, a parent needs to take a sick child to the doctor, or a senior needs follow-up care, it is easier for them to get the treatment they need in their own communities.
So we really need to make sure they have the resources they need. I do also want to express concern that the budget proposes to cut the rural hospital flexibility program.
This program helps sustain and improve hospitals in the most difficult-to-reach communities, including 10 hospitals in Washington state.
I believe we absolutely need to see continued strong support for this investment in the health and safety of families in rural communities.
Finally—I know that rural health access is a priority all of us here today care about.
So I would like to note that the President’s budget is able to sustain these investments, along with supporting other key priorities from education, to infrastructure, to defense, because it responsibly replaces harmful cuts from sequestration that are set to kick back in.
I’m proud that last Congress, Republicans and Democrats were able to come together to reach an agreement that rolled back sequestration for fiscal years 2014 and 2015.
With our deal set to expire I hope that we can build on that bipartisan foundation, and prevent harmful cuts to investments in families, jobs, and our economy—including critical support for rural health care.
I look forward to working with my colleagues on this in the coming weeks and months. Thank you again to our witnesses for being here.
And Mr. Chairman, thank you again for holding this hearing on a topic that means so much to families in my state and across the country.