Inforgraphic of rural health care stats (Click to enlarge)

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Rural residents are less likely to describe themselves as beingin good health than their urban and suburban counterparts, and theyface more challenges when accessing health care, accordingto a national consumer survey bythe Transamerica Center for Health Studies.

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Rural America is becoming a medical desert, with more than 125U.S. rural hospitals closing in the last decade, the report states. And the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the situationand raising concerns about the accessibility of health care inrural areas.

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Related: States scramble to address the ongoing rural healthcare crisis

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"Even before COVID-19, many rural residents faced health andhealth care-related risks. The pandemic greatly magnifies theserisks. At a societal level, more can and should be done to enhancethe accessibility and affordability of health care," ChristopherWells, national program manager for TCHS, said in a press release."At an individual level, it is extremely important that ruralresidents be hypervigilant in safeguarding their health and followthe CDC's recommendations for taking precautionary measures, suchas social distancing, wearing a mask, and frequent handwashing."

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According to the report, 69% of rural residents describe theirhealth as excellent or good, compared to 80% of urban residents and78% of suburban residents. Another 69% of rural residents have beentold by a health care provider that they have a health conditionsuch as depression, high blood pressure, arthritis or obesity, a rate higher than urban residents(66%) or suburban residents (64%). And 31% of rural residents havebeen told they have a mental health condition, compared to 24% ofsuburban residents and 29% of urban residents.

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Of concern, the report states, is the 19% of rural residents whohave no health insurance, a rate far greater than the 10% of urbanresidents and 11% of suburbanites. And three in four ruralresidents, 75 percent, say they are able to afford routine healthcare expenses such as insurance co-pays, deductibles andout-of-pocket expenses,  which is lower than reported byurban (82%) and suburban residents (85%).

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Rural residents also report making fewer health care visits,with 70% visiting a doctor's office in the past year, compared to75% of urban residents and 74% of suburban residents. And fewerrural residents are saving for health care in flexible spendingaccounts, health savings accounts or bank accounts, 24%, comparedto 38% of urban residents and 34% of suburban residents.

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Despite the significant divide, there is plenty that can be doneto close the gap, according to the report's authors, both byemployers and policymakers.

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"Employers across all regions of the country play a crucial rolein providing workers with health insurance coverage and workplacewellness programs, but in rural areas, this is happening to alesser extent," Wells said.

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Employers in rural areas should ensure that they're offering thebest possible health care plans and prices for their workers andoffering a number of plan options, and take steps to encourageenrollment. They should also make an effort to offer and encourageparticipation in wellness programs and activities and create anemployee culture that emphasizes health and healthy behaviors.

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The report's recommendation to policymakers include addressingthe lack of medical facilities and medical professionals in ruralareas by revisiting the distribution of federally qualified healthcenters and introducing better incentives for medicalprofessionals  to train and practice in those areas. Andthe report called for providing and subsidizing more broadbandinternet access and expanding telemedicine services in low-incomeand rural communities.

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Health care can be improved in rural areas byaddressing transportation barriers with pooled orsubsidized transport, according to the report. It also called forrevisiting the implications of Medicaid expansion and its potentialassociation with viability of rural hospitals.

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Charles Toutant

Charles Toutant is a litigation writer for the New Jersey Law Journal.