NEW MEXICO EDITORIAL FORUM

By Margarita Mercure Hibbs

Living in rural regions supports a lifestyle that many families, small businesses and retirees appreciate. However, securing access to affordable, quality health care -- especially during a recession -- can be a challenge. With roughly one-third of its 2 million residents living in rural areas, New Mexico has an especially severe challenge.

According to studies by the Rural Health Research & Policy Center, the Flex Monitoring Team, and Kaiser, there are 42 hospitals in New Mexico, only 29 of which are located in rural areas, and six of which are critical access hospitals.

What does this mean for rural New Mexicans? These numbers show that although they occupy the largest geographical territory in the state, folks in rural New Mexico only get about half the medical resources. These statistics are devastating to our state and are completely unsustainable.

Adding to the special challenges facing New Mexicans is the fact that our state has some of the highest unemployment and uninsured rates in the nation. The rural-urban disparity in insurance coverage is exacerbated by the fact that incomes are generally lower and fewer rural companies offer private health insurance.

These special challenges are why the changes brought about by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are so important to New Mexicans. The Act addresses many of the health care issues that so many rural Americans face and ensures that they will now have affordable access to necessary health care that was once unavailable to them.

Historically, rural New Mexicans faced with catastrophic injuries or illnesses have had a greatly diminished chance of survival due to the lack of emergency, urgent care, and first responder resources.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act creates a system that is fair for rural communities -- one that will grow rural health care workforces by making necessary investments in training, recruitment and facilities, so that rural populations have greater access to doctors, nurses, dentists and paramedics.

Health care reform sets important guidelines which address the care of our most vulnerable members of society. Under the Act, people with pre-existing conditions, children and youth, small businesses and seniors will be the first groups to directly benefit.

Beginning in 2104, insurance companies will finally be held accountable and may no longer refuse coverage to a person simply because he or she has a medical history. Until then, a pre-existing condition insurance plan serves as a bridge to meet the needs of those individuals who have already been denied insurance coverage and have been uninsured for at least 6 months.

Children can’t be denied coverage for any reason and family coverage will be extended for young adults through the age of 26.

Seniors, who have fallen into the prescription coverage gap (the “donut hole”) since 2007, will receive assistance with paying for medications, and will also have access to cheaper ones.

Most importantly, everyone will also have greater access to preventive care, which will help avoid expensive and unnecessary treatments later.

Establishing a fair playing field for small and independent businesses is a key component of reform. In New Mexico, agriculture and tourism are cornerstone industries – related small businesses contribute greatly to the economy. But typically, in rural areas, one large insurance company dominates the market, so there is no guarantee of choice or competitive pricing.

To remain viable, these small businesses must be able to attract and keep good employees by being given the opportunity to provide health insurance (large corporate businesses currently pay, on average, 18 percent less for comparable insurance plans). In the past, only 35 percent of small business owners were able to offer health insurance to their employees, but this year, more than 88.9 percent of New Mexico small businesses (24,800) with fewer than 25 employees will be eligible for tax credits to help pay the cost of necessary employee health insurance coverage.

Many New Mexicans are already benefiting from reform. Health Action New Mexico, a statewide health advocacy organization, provides information to folks in order to better explain what the health care plan does and doesn’t do. Access to this information is an important piece of reform, so we strongly encourage you to contact them directly at www.healthactionnm.org or (505) 867-1095.
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Hibbs is a rural advocacy specialist and former first lady of Estancia.
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Copyright (C) 2010 by New Mexico Editorial Forum. 10/10