(CN) – Warning that “time is running out to get it right,” South Bend, Indiana, mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg unveiled a plan Friday to promote affordable, expansive health care for rural Americans and Native American tribes.
“Today, the gap between rural and urban life expectancy is at its widest point in at least half a century,” according to the plan, which seeks to widely address rural deficits in mental health care and maternal care, as well as care for veterans, Native Americans and black and Hispanic people living in rural areas.
The proposal calls for strengthening the foundation of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, and protecting it from Republican attacks while implementing a public health care option.
Buttigieg has dubbed his public option “Medicare for All Who Want It,” which would make competitive Medicare-type health care available to all Americans and incentivize corporate insurers to adjust their rates while still leaving people the option of keeping their private insurance.
The plan is more middle-of-the-road than other purely Medicare for All plans endorsed by U.S. senators and fellow Democratic candidates Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.
The proposal would also increase subsidies for low-income Americans using Obamacare subsidies as a baseline.
The 2020 hopeful’s plan further seeks to reduce care shortages in rural America, stating that in these areas “over 4,000 communities lack access to a primary care doctor and 2,500 lack access to a mental health professional,” and if nothing is done, rural communities will have 8,000 fewer OB-GYNs than needed by 2020.
The mayor aims to accomplish this by incentivizing doctors and other care providers to work in rural and tribal areas through expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, the National Health Service Corps. and the Conrad 30 waiver program that encourages immigrant doctors to work in stateside rural areas by waiving certain visa requirements. He also wants to boost funding for training programs for medical students and residents.
“Time is running out to get it right, and we need to act now,” the plan states. “If we go down the same path of disconnect and neglect, we’ll repeat the failures of the last 40 years. But, it’s not too late.”
Buttigieg’s plan makes a point of “assuring universal access to prevention and treatment for mental illness and addiction” by securing across-the-board access to treatment options like therapy and medication to treat opioid addiction, and training communities to address the harmful stigmas of addiction and mental illness.
Heightened maternal mortality rates among rural women of color would be addressed by bolstering the full range of reproductive care and family planning services, while also passing legislation to improve data collection for maternal mortality rates in rural areas and requiring training to “address implicit bias and racism in hospitals and other health care settings.”
Buttigieg’s rural health proposal also addresses mobility and transportation as access barriers to quality, inexpensive health care in rural parts of the country.
Part and parcel with “tech-forward care models” to address these issues of access, the mayor proposes increasing investment in telehealth and virtual care that patients can get from home, in part by expanding high-speed broadband internet access and doubling funding to the Federal Communication Commission’s Rural Health Care Program to $1 billion annually.
Also related to the problem of traveling to receive medical care in rural areas is the plan’s proposal to expand investment in public transportation, upping the supply and training necessary for medical transportation vehicles, and tapping new technologies like ridesharing services to make mobility more flexible and accessible for rural Americans in order to preempt “the effects of social isolation” in these areas.
Additionally, Buttigieg’s proposal would “renew our commitment to tribal nations” by strengthening the Indian Health Service, or HIS, and recognizing “HIS and tribally-managed health departments as equal partners in our efforts to improve the nation’s public health infrastructure.”
“It’s time to usher in a new era for rural America. That work begins by deploying investment and innovation to secure the health of all rural residents,” the plan states.