Sen. John Thune
August 7-13 is National Health Center Week in America, and it’s a great opportunity to recognize and celebrate the health care professionals who make small community health centers across the country a reality. These physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, doctors, dentists, and others play a pivotal role in creating rural access points for South Dakotans who live in areas where the nearest hospital could be an hour or more away. The centers themselves are an important part of the community, and they help create a seamless transition to quality health care for rural patients.
It’s not uncommon for Main Street in rural communities throughout South Dakota to have a post office, a gas station, a small grocery store or market, and possibly a traffic light or two – not much more than that. Just because some South Dakotans choose to call small town America home doesn’t mean they’re less deserving of the health care that’s often available in more populated areas. The health care professionals who choose to practice in these smaller communities should be applauded because without them, the community members who rely on these facilities would be forced to travel long distances and likely incur higher costs along the way.
It’s not only the paid medical staff who are to be commended, it’s the volunteers across the state who dedicate their time at South Dakota’s community health centers. Recognizing the enormous benefit provided by these volunteer health professionals, last year I reintroduced bipartisan legislation that would encourage additional volunteer opportunities at these kinds of facilities. My bill, the Family Health Care Accessibility Act, would change federal law to lift malpractice coverage burdens that are a barrier to volunteerism for some providers. Doing so will make it easier for those who wish to donate their time and services to these health professions shortage areas.
We’ve also looked at new and cutting-edge ways to help alleviate some of the problems faced by long distances between health care facilities. For example, if a patient at a community health center required specialized care or examination, what if distance no longer mattered? That’s where telehealth technology can play an important role. Telehealth is the way of the future, so we should do all we can to embrace this innovative technology. I cosponsored legislation earlier this year that would expand telehealth services and make it easier for Medicare patients to connect with their doctors and other providers without having to travel long distances to do so. This legislation, the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) Act, is another bipartisan initiative that would help create higher quality care for patients in rural South Dakota.
While no two states in the country are the same, nearly every state from New York to California faces certain challenges in rural health care. With a little hard work, those challenges can be turned into opportunities, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing here in South Dakota at community health centers that are serving patients and fighting to keep them healthy.