The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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July 27, 2011

Future of rural health care bleak

Rural populations generally older

— Those living in rural Minnesota are more likely to have chronic diseases, must drive farther for specialty medical care and face other hurdles to getting good health care, according to a UnitedHealth Group report.

“The next few years will be times of considerable stress on rural health care, but also times of great opportunity,” said Simon Stevens, UnitedHealth Group executive vice president and chairman of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform & Modernization.

“Across the country there are already impressive examples of high-quality care.”

The report, which looked at data from across the nation, cited Minnesota as doing among the best in serving rural residents.

Besides having fewer family practice doctors per capita in rural areas, the rural populations are generally older than in urban areas, adding to problems with chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Health access and affordability problems will increase as more rural residents go on Medicare. One problem in attracting doctors to rural areas is that Medicare reimbursement is lower. The study calls for equalizing those payments.

The study suggests finding ways to recruit more doctors to less populated areas and to better utilize nurse practitioners, physicians’ assistants and other caregivers. They also say expanded use of broadband Internet in rural areas can help by allowing off-site specialists to work with rural caregivers in diagnosing and treating patients.

About 50 million Americans live in rural areas with the Midwest having the largest rural area. About 25 percent of Minnesotans live in rural areas.

The Minnetonka-based insurer is the largest in the nation based on revenues.

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