In this Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a health care provider works out of a truck in Millinocket Regional Hospital's parking lot following a coronavirus outbreak in the region. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Sara Gideon is the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

This November, access to health care is on the ballot — especially for people living in rural communities. Even before the coronavirus crisis, our rural health care system faced extreme economic pressures; now, the pandemic is exacerbating these challenges and threatening access to vital care. As one of the most rural states in the nation, it is critical that Maine’s leaders fight to support rural hospitals, health centers and the people they care for during and after this crisis.

Maine’s rural health care facilities offer essential care, from routine health procedures to lifesaving emergency services. These contributions also extend far beyond health — rural hospitals and health centers are also major economic drivers in their communities, employing hundreds of skilled technicians, nurses, doctors and administrators. In fact, hospitals and medical centers are the largest private employers in nine of Maine’s 16 counties.

But Maine’s rural health care system needs support. Last year, two of our rural hospitals filed for bankruptcy, endangering the health of the communities they serve and threatening their regional economies. This pain has deepened in recent months, as necessary medical precautions forced rural hospitals to limit outpatient procedures — which provide up to 80 percent of their revenue — during the pandemic’s early months.

The need to act couldn’t be clearer, and the urgency couldn’t be higher. We cannot allow Maine’s rural hospitals to close. For the health of both our people and our economy, we must protect and expand our rural health care systems.

In the State House, we’ve worked hard to support rural health. We passed legislation ensuring that people with pre-existing conditions can’t be discriminated against, and championed MaineCare expansion that has so far given more than 62,000 uninsured Mainers access to vital coverage, protecting some of our state’s most vulnerable people during this unprecedented pandemic.

In addition to helping more Mainers access health care, MaineCare expansion has helped shore up the finances of our rural health care providers. But one week after Election Day, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a Republican-led lawsuit that could eliminate this important lifeline for Maine’s rural health providers, during a pandemic when they need it most.

This case was made possible by Sen. Susan Collins’ decisive vote for the 2017 GOP tax bill. Sadly, if Collins hadn’t backed Mitch McConnell’s plan to give tax breaks to corporations and special interests, our rural health care providers wouldn’t be facing this threat today.

Mainers deserve better leadership. In the Senate, I will bolster our rural health care systems by prioritizing increased funding for community health centers and expanding access to mobile coronavirus testing centers. I’ll also fight to make telemedicine more accessible, including making permanent the Medicare telemedicine policies established during the pandemic. We’ve seen over the past seven months that telemedicine is an incredibly effective tool, and there’s no reason that expanded telemedicine practices should end with the pandemic. I’ll also advocate for rural broadband funding, to help rural Mainers access high-speed internet and the connections to health care, school and businesses that they need to thrive.

Of course, there is no rural health care without rural health care providers. As Maine continues to face extreme workforce challenges, I will support efforts to recruit doctors and nurses to our state’s rural regions, and push to give these facilities the funds they need to invest in their technologies and their staff.

I’ll also work every day to improve the long-term financial outlooks of our rural hospitals and health centers. In the Senate, I will advocate for an increase to Medicare reimbursement rates, which will increase hospital revenues across the board. I’ll also fight to designate more Maine providers as “critical access hospitals,” allowing more of our rural health care providers to receive higher Medicare reimbursement rates.

There’s a lot of work to be done to protect and expand our rural health care systems, which is why we need a senator who will make health care a priority. Mainers deserve a senator who will fight for health care across the state — and that’s exactly what I’ll do in Washington.

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