Senator John ThuneThere are many things that make living in South Dakota's smaller towns so special. The peace and gentle pace of life cannot be matched anywhere else. There are, however, several challenges facing small towns in South Dakota, and one of them is access to quality and affordable health care.
It stands to reason that larger communities attract hospitals with more specialists, more advanced equipment, and simply, more people. This does not mean that rural residents will always have lower quality health care, and a major reason why is the strength of community health centers in South Dakota.
Community health centers are community-owned, non-profit health care providers located in medically underserved areas. These facilities expand access to primary and preventative care for the uninsured and reduce costs for both families and state and federal health programs by providing an alternative setting for care other than emergency rooms.
This means that families with limited incomes have a place to go for an earache, sore throat, diabetes, or other needs without having to go to their hospital emergency room or foregoing care altogether. Today, South Dakota is served by 31 community health centers.
I was proud to cosponsor the Health Care Safety Net Act, which was passed by the Senate in July. This legislation would reauthorize the Health Centers program though 2012, and it provides up to $45 million per year in grants for facilities and states to improve rural health care. The bill would also reauthorize the successful National Health Service Corps program, which places physicians, dentists, nurse practitioners, and other health professionals in rural and medically underserved areas.
I am committed to working in the Senate to address the disparity between health care in rural and urban areas. I believe that one of the best ways to bring improved care to rural South Dakota is through telehealth technology, which can connect patients and doctors electronically over great distances.
For the coming year, the Senate has allocated $8 million for the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth for telehealth grants and resource centers, which is an increase over last year's budget. Because of the tremendous benefits these technologies provide, I will work to ensure that the funding required to expand telehealth in South Dakota and elsewhere remains at the level necessary to move this technology forward.
Rural South Dakotans should not have to sacrifice access to affordable, high-quality health care because of where they live. Through community health centers, rural health clinics, and technologies like telehealth, small towns in South Dakota can enjoy the same level of care as urban areas through access to high-quality doctors, nurses, and facilities. I will continue working to make sure that rural quality of life in South Dakota remains high, because I feel that rural South Dakota's strength is part of what makes our state such a great place to live.