Guest Column

Rural Communities Deserve Equitable Access to Quality Health Care

Montanans living in the most rural parts of the state, who already face fewer options for medical care, are also less likely to have insurance coverage through an employer

By Shane Morigeau

Montana’s rural communities are enormous contributors to our state economy. They are home to our farms and ranches, our thriving Tribal communities, and much of what makes Montana so attractive to tourists – mountains, rivers, lakes, open prairies, and abundant wildlife. Montana’s beauty and its space are in large part what led to the pandemic population boom. Our rural areas deserve access to the services and programs that our more urban areas enjoy – especially quality, affordable health care.  

Across the country, people are clamoring for something to be done about rising out-of-pocket costs and the resulting impact of expensive medical bills. Nowhere in the country is this truer than in Montana. Montanans living in the most rural parts of the state, who already face fewer options for medical care, are also less likely to have insurance coverage through an employer. Rural Montanans are also more apt to have chronic medical conditions and lower incomes, putting specialized treatments financially out-of-reach. 

  Over the summer, Lake Research Partners and Impact Research conducted a survey that found, above all else, that Montana voters view lowering out-of-pocket costs as a necessary policy priority now more than ever. Compared to other health care issues, lowering out-of-pocket costs was more than twice as important to Montanans. Beyond that, more than 80 percent of Montanans think the cost they’re paying for health care is rising each year. More than 70% agree that it’s impossible for them to know year-over-year what they’ll owe for health care due to the unpredictability of out-of-pocket costs. For rural families, including our state’s Native population, it’s a cost and access issue.

  Due to the work of lawmakers like Sen. Jon Tester, Montana has largely avoided the massive rural hospital closures that have plagued other states. Keeping the lights on at these facilities and making health care accessible in their hometowns is still a front-of-mind issue for voters; 85% of Montanans want their state and federal lawmakers to ensure that rural hospitals continue to operate and thrive, and 70% want to see telehealth fully covered by their health insurance. In many communities and for many families, the difference between driving a few miles or driving a few hours is one of life or death. 

Montana’s elected officials can do a lot more to ensure our rural residents have equal access to high quality, affordable health care. As a state senator, I’m consistently working toward ensuring equitable standards of care whether you’ve made your home in Missoula or in Houston. I’ll continue to work toward that goal and will push our federal representatives to do the same. It’s time for our health care system to reflect the needs of our state, and what we need is lower out-of-pocket costs and better access to care for all 56 counties.

Shane Morigeau is a Democratic state senator from Missoula. 

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