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Rural Health Policy

How do we ensure access to affordable, high quality healthcare for rural residents? How can Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement approaches allow rural healthcare facilities to keep their doors open? How can we attract healthcare providers to rural communities? Questions like these, along with countless others, are the basis of rural health policy.

Rural health policymaking takes place at the federal, state, and local levels of government. The process includes defining a problem, researching solutions, choosing a course of action, implementing the plan, and evaluating the results. During each step, policymakers must weigh economic, political, social, legal, ethical, and administrative factors. Formulating rural health policy involves many people and organizations, including:

  • Lawmakers
  • Government agencies
  • Membership associations
  • Rural health researchers
  • Rural healthcare providers
  • Rural patients
  • Rural stakeholders (individuals, community-based organizations, businesses, and others)

These groups work individually and collectively to identify improvements to the provision of healthcare services in rural communities.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of issues does rural health policy address?

Rural health policy addresses many of the same issues as the broader realm of health policy, such as access to care, quality improvement, cost containment, and healthcare system redesign. However, rural health policy focuses specifically on how policy choices affect rural communities, populations, and healthcare facilities. Health policy issues of particular interest for rural stakeholders include:

It is important to remember, however, that policy issues change over time. As current problems are solved, new problems arise. Public sentiment also plays a role in determining which issues receive attention.

What role does the Federal Government play in the rural health policy process?

At the federal level, the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches of government conduct the formal policymaking process.

  • Executive Branch
    Headed by the President of the United States, the Executive Branch plays a strong leadership role in the policymaking process. The Executive Branch is charged with executing and enforcing the laws as passed by Congress. Executive departments and agencies assist the President in carrying out the daily administrative tasks of the federal government. Through the executive budget process, the President is able to set national spending priorities. How the President chooses to allocate resources during his/her tenure can have a major impact on rural healthcare. Another important role of the executive branch is the rulemaking process, which allows federal agencies to determine how laws and policies are implemented following public input on proposed rules.
  • Legislative Branch
    The Legislative Branch of government, or Congress, is composed of two assemblies: The U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Elected representatives within each chamber carry out the formal legislative process at the federal level. All federal legislative powers are granted solely to Congress. Congress also holds the power of the purse, and controls federal government spending through the appropriations process. Several agencies within the Legislative Branch, such as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Library of Congress (LOC), provide support and information services to members of Congress. At least 11 committees between the House and Senate have some jurisdiction over health policy. The informally organized, bipartisan Senate Rural Health Caucus and House Rural Health Care Coalition help focus legislative attention and provide a forum for addressing rural healthcare issues.
  • Judicial Branch
    Composed of the Supreme Court of the United States and other federal courts, the Judicial Branch interprets the meaning of laws, applies laws to specific cases, and determines the constitutionality of legislation. Decisions issued by federal courts sometimes affect rural healthcare in substantial ways.

What is the role of the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP)?

Operating as a division within the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP) was created by Section 711 of the Social Security Act in 1987, and is charged with the following tasks:

  • Inform and advise the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on matters affecting rural healthcare and hospitals.
  • Coordinate activities within HHS that relate to rural healthcare.
  • Establish and maintain a rural health information clearinghouse.
  • Administer grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts to provide technical assistance and other activities that support healthcare in rural areas.

In this unique capacity, FORHP is the primary driver and facilitator of federal action related to rural health. Another primary function of FORHP is providing management and support services for the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services (NACRHHS). NACRHHS is a 21-member panel of rural health experts that provides recommendations to the Secretary of HHS on issues related to rural health.

Which federal agencies participate in the rural health policy process?

Along with the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy (FORHP), the following agencies work to address rural health policy issues:

What steps are involved in the rural health policymaking process?

An issue or idea related to rural health may emerge through research findings or concerns expressed by groups or individuals. Oftentimes, because of their advocacy function, membership organizations are responsible for raising awareness of issues in the public arena. Bringing an issue to the attention of policymakers may be accomplished through policy briefs, direct communication with the policymaker's office, or other methods. There are countless ways in which an issue may come to the forefront, and rarely do two policies follow the exact same path.

State-level policymaking involves many players. Policies become law once approved by the state's legislative body and are signed by the state's governor. Regulation and enforcement of state-level policies becomes the responsibility of state agencies, similar to the enforcement process at the federal level. However, due to a level of state sovereignty as defined by U.S. law, variation amongst enforcement methods exists between states.

At the federal level, once a problem and potential policy solution are identified, policymakers in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives may craft legislation intended to address the issue. This legislation development process often includes input from a variety of experts and interested parties, including through Senate or House committee hearings, where witnesses invited for their expertise or viewpoint provide testimony and answer questions. If the legislation is passed, signed by the President, and becomes law, then federal agencies with jurisdiction over the related policy or program will be called upon to administer regulations and enforce the law. To increase the likelihood of getting passed, rural health legislation commonly becomes part of a larger bill such as an omnibus appropriation bill.

At both the state and federal levels, the process of identifying and addressing issues through policy is iterative. Each time a change is made, policymakers, researchers, and interested parties examine the results, look for ways to improve the solutions, and begin the process again. Evaluation and data reporting requirements for federally-funded programs and rural health research help support this process.

How do researchers support rural health policy?

Rural health researchers focus their efforts on identifying, understanding, and solving problems related to the provision of healthcare in rural communities, as rural areas face many unique healthcare challenges. Research findings help inform policymakers and stakeholders about disparities or other prevalent issues that should be addressed. Additionally, research related to rural populations and rural healthcare facilities helps forecast the effects of policy on rural healthcare access, and predicts potential unintended consequences of proposed policies.

Researchers may also be tasked with evaluating program performance. In this role, researchers identify which programs and methods are effective, and which are not. The evaluation process helps facilitate best practices and ensures resources are being used in the most effective manner.

Through the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, the federal government funds a number of rural health research centers and analysis initiatives across the U.S. For information about current rural health research projects, please see the Rural Health Research Gateway. For additional information about rural health research, see the Conducting Rural Health Research, Needs Assessment, and Program Evaluation topic guide.

What role do membership organizations play in advocating for rural health issues?

Membership organizations work with lawmakers to inform them on issues and challenges affecting the rural health community. These organizations often communicate important messages by producing documents, sponsoring or attending conferences, and maintaining an online presence. Membership organizations also keep their members informed by tracking pending legislation. If and when new laws pass, membership organizations relay important provisions to ensure their members are aware of them.

As part of their advocacy function, membership organizations help mobilize members and connect them with state and federal legislators. State associations play an important role in educating and advocating for state action and help inform national associations about the implications of national policies at the state and community level. Oftentimes, as a way to focus efforts and set priorities, groups of individuals with similar interests assemble within the organization to form an interest group or committee. This model allows diverse interests to voice their opinions, while working towards common goals within the framework of the larger organization. Other major functions of membership organizations include education, policy formation, research, and technical assistance.

Membership organizations with interests in rural health include:

What resources are available to stay current on evolving rural health policy?

Several government agencies, membership organizations, research centers, and nonprofit organizations at the national and state levels serve as resources to stay current on rural health policy issues. The following list, while not exhaustive, includes resources representing a variety of rural health interests:

Federal Policy Resources

State Policy Resources
Note: there will be variation among states.

  • State Offices of Rural Health (SORHs)
    These offices coordinate statewide efforts to improve healthcare delivery systems in rural communities. They are also tasked with collecting and disseminating information, and providing technical assistance to public and nonprofit entities. All 50 states currently have a SORH.
  • State Rural Health Associations (SRHAs)
    Advocacy groups that focus statewide efforts and provide forums for collaboration within each state.
  • Primary Care Associations (PCAs)
    State or regional organizations that offer training and technical assistance (T/TA) to safety-net providers.
  • State and Territorial Health Officials
    Oversee state/territorial health departments and implement state laws affecting them. Often lead or serve on boards and commissions related to public health issues.
  • State Long-Term Care Associations
    Trade associations that work to enhance long-term care services through advocacy, education, and collaboration.

Last Reviewed: 1/11/2019