Arkansas has experienced a record number of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and the state has taken serious measures to mitigate this spike. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has deployed the National Guard to assist frontline workers with testing, and millions of at-home tests have been distributed to residents.
However, despite these efforts, the ongoing outbreak has illuminated the numerous health challenges that rural Americans face.
Rural communities face many health issues, including limited medical facilities, staffing shortages, and a lack of necessary supplies. As a result, recent studies show that COVID rates are nearly 55% higher in rural areas, and a rural American is twice as likely to die from the virus as an urban counterpart.
This is a critical issue for the people of Arkansas, 40% of whom live in rural counties. As a state, we must ensure our rural communities have access to the healthcare they deserve during the pandemic and beyond.
One group negatively impacted by our country’s weak rural health systems is our veterans. The physical and mental scars that many veterans bring home and live with every day make access to adequate healthcare an absolute necessity. And yet, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 25% of former service members live in rural areas, areas where limited access to healthcare can have severe consequences for those who have served.
With almost 10% of our adult population consisting of veterans, numbering over 250,000 strong, Arkansas lawmakers must ensure our rural communities and the veterans who live within them receive the quality of care they have earned. Those who have served should not needlessly suffer from the pandemic or any health condition simply because of their location.
Fortunately, many of our leaders have recognized the outstanding need for policies that help rural veterans. As a result, there has been a growing effort amongst lawmakers to support programs that provide healthcare to those former servicemen and women who live in underserved remote communities.
Some of the most effective programs have relied on technology to provide solutions. One of these technologies is telehealth. Telehealth programs allow healthcare specialists to work with their patients virtually. By placing telehealth stations at a convenient location within rural communities, specialists can monitor their patients’ health from hospitals anywhere in the country.
This technology can be particularly beneficial for those veterans who suffer from Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and find heavy traffic, metropolitan areas, or crowded VA Healthcare Centers overwhelming. Access to telehealth mitigates these challenges and grants rural communities access to primary care, nutritional advice, trained social workers, and mental health support.
I myself have used this system for specialty practices, general practice, and mental health. While I admit I was skeptical when I scheduled my first telehealth appointment, I was hooked and completely relieved of my concerns after connecting with my provider. I now use telehealth technology from my home, my RV, and even in a private setting in our state’s capitol.
Some of these telehealth programs are even designed with the specific intent of serving veterans. Through a partnership with Philips, The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) created Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations (ATLAS), a program working to implement this technology for veterans throughout the country at their local VA or VFW stations, which are often easier for rural veterans to access.
Supporting the growth and expansion of such programs is a powerful way for our state’s lawmakers to protect our veterans. Luckily, lawmakers like our own Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., have worked tirelessly to support retired members of our armed services. As a senior member of the Senate’s Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I hope Sen. Boozman will continue to support veterans and work to bring telehealth programs to rural communities right here in Arkansas.
Editor’s note: Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, is a former director of the Arkansas Military Department, Adjutant General, and the first commanding general of the Arkansas National Guard. The opinions expressed are those of the author.