Numerous challenges plague health care in America’s rural areas. These challenges, which manifest as health disparities and limitations on access, are worsening as rural hospitals continue to close across the country. As this is a problem particularly located in the American south (including in my home state), I was interested to read Rural Health, Universality, and Legislative Targeting by Nicole Huberfeld, one of the truly eminent scholars within health law, and an expert in rural health care, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
In the piece written for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, Huberfeld starts by documenting the health disparities that citizens living in rural America face—from lower rates of insurance coverage; to limited access to primary care; to higher rates of chronic diseases and poverty. After providing useful discussion about the definition of what it means to be “rural” and how spatial characteristics and population trends complicate and exacerbate rural health disparities, Huberfeld then skillfully weaves these data and trends into other data that reflect higher rates of deaths of despair, mental and public health challenges, and ultimately, differences amongst financial structures that negatively impact access to health care in rural areas. Coupled with lower employment and income, rural Americans exhibit higher uninsurance rates and lower rates of access to care. A detrimental feedback pattern develops, as these factors further negatively impact population health in these areas, which heightens the need for access to rural health care. In this section of the paper she provides a particularly salient example of the impact of access challenges on maternal health in rural America.
In the second part of her paper, Huberfeld contemplates the appropriate legal solution to the challenges facing rural health care. She observes that nearly ten years ago, the ACA stepped into the space, seeking to bring universal access to health care and health insurance for all Americans—including rural Americans. But, the Supreme Court’s decision in NFIB v. Sebelius allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, a decision that has had a particular impact on health care access and delivery in rural states. Here she makes the argument that the resulting non-expansion states have been most resistant to the ACA’s universal approach and, instead, have sought to apply targeted legislative solutions to what ails their health care delivery systems, segmenting off pieces of health care access crises in their states in an attempt to deal with discrete, narrow solutions. She provides a number of examples of what she calls “targeted legislation to offset ACA resistance.”
Here Huberfeld skillfully places these attempts—to establish targeted solutions to the rural health care crisis while blocking the universal solution presented by the ACA—in broader political science literature, and particularly Professor Theda Skocpol’s work that argues that anti-poverty legislative interventions are most successful when “packaged so that they do not look like special care for the needy.” In essence, the argument goes, universal application of an anti-poverty regime adds to its durability, insulating it from legislative retrenchment. Examples include the Social Security Act and universal government benefits. Huberfeld cites to the vastly different durabilities and histories of Medicare and Medicaid to help make her point.
Relying on Skocpol’s work, Huberfeld then makes the central contribution of her paper, arguing that targeted interventions meant to improve rural health care and access may “have the effect of buffering rural disparities, but targeting without universalism holds limited promise both in theory and in practice.” Focusing on targeted approaches is unlikely to solve the problem of rural health disparities, she argues.
This piece was well-written and well-researched. It is a treasure of data for those who are seeking good information on rural health disparities. And it contributes a key insight. Indeed, Professor Huberfeld is the authority on Medicaid and rural health care within the United States, and her astute observation regarding the appropriate legislative solution should be heeded by state policymakers. In a time in which the rural health care crisis is worsening and rural hospitals continue to close, Huberfeld’s well-reasoned and well-articulated suggestions should be amplified from the academy to the statehouse.