OP-ED: Health is wealth in rural Texas

In rural West Texas, the sunrise paints the sky, the fresh air, and open space seem to make time move slower and the stars at night are big and bright. There’s exceptional beauty in Texas’ rural communities. But the same rural lifestyle that draws many to Far West Texas can also make it difficult to receive easy access to high-quality health care services.     

During my recent visits to the rural communities in Senate District 29, I heard from residents, clinics, healthcare providers, and the Culberson County and Big Bend Regional Hospital District who conveyed their uphill battle against limited healthcare services in their communities. Local mothers shared the difficulty of getting prenatal and basic reproductive care; like having to travel to Midland to get a sonogram. And while talking to senior citizens in our community, many say, “West Texas is a great place to retire, but a bad place to grow old,” because healthcare is often hundreds of miles away. No family in Far West Texas should have to settle for limited health care services because of where they choose to live. That’s why I’m fighting to bring better healthcare closer to home. And we can do it by:    

Expanding Medicaid. Texas has the largest uninsured rate in the nation. In recent years, over 26 hospitals have closed in rural Texas, significantly impacting access to quality care. An expansion would not only cover over 1.7 million Texans but improve hospital performance and curtail the rate of rural hospital closures. Moreover, expansion would bring over $15 billion to the state, create jobs, help small businesses that can’t afford insurance premiums, and reduce property taxes used for safety-net hospitals and indigent care.  

Expanding maternal and postpartum healthcare for new moms. In Texas, 18.4 of 1,000 deliveries result in maternal morbidity –– 18.4 too many. Unbeknownst, the leading cause of maternal death and illness is lack of access to healthcare. Last session, I successfully voted to extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers to six months postpartum, but we should follow the lead of other states with lower maternal morbidity rates and extend coverage to 12 months to protect Texas mothers’ health and ensure their child is not raised without their mother.   

Incentivizing and bolstering the Healthcare Workforce. Texas is expected to have a deficit of 57,012 nurses in 2023, and rural communities will be the most affected. Part of the solution is to sponsor students from small communities who go to medical school and encourage them to return and practice where they grew up. It’s imperative we incentivize healthcare workers to practice in Rural Texas by strengthening health workforce programs at Sul Ross, UTEP, and Texas Tech Health Sciences Center El Paso and providing generous financial aid.  

 Supporting rural EMS services. In rural Texas, pandemic-related burnout and staffing shortages plague EMS services. Last session, I proudly co-authored SB8 which allocated $21.7 million to funding incentivization efforts, education programs, and prioritizing underserved areas. To keep the ball rolling, we must assess workforce data, continue to pilot and expand innovative models for reducing transportation time to care, and explore funding models to encourage recruitment and retention in EMS agencies to assure that when calling 911, you get a response.  

Expanding telemedicine and telehealth. Telemedicine has become a cornerstone of good health in rural communities. Last session, I co-sponsored HB4 which allowed more care services to be delivered using virtual services. This has helped the continuity of basic primary care, specialty care, and mental health services. Though this bill was a great step in the right direction, we also need to meet the demand for the virtual shift by expanding broadband services to ensure residents have access to a resilient and accessible telehealth system.   

Restoring the State Office of Rural Health to its previous capacity. Since 2008, funding for the State Office of Rural Health (SORH) has declined every year and the number of employees working exclusively on rural health has significantly decreased. By committing to a multi-session restoration of the SOHR to prior levels with 20+ full-time staff working on and coordinating efforts to enhance rural healthcare across Texas, there would be a considerable enhancement to quality health care for rural Texans.  

No Texan should have to make the decision of letting their health issues worsen or taking on the expense of traveling hundreds of miles to access quality care. Health is wealth and Texas needs to do better for rural healthcare because our rural communities matter. As your state senator and as a member of the Senate Committee on Health & Human Services, I will continue fighting for our rural communities to ensure rural Texans are not left behind and have access to affordable healthcare.