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Prioritize universal broadband

The current buzz in Washington and with Democratic presidential candidates is “Medicare for all,” supported by senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Other candidates, such as Joe Biden, prefer sort of a “Medicare for all lite” called the public option which increases federal control of the U.S. health care system, although not as much as the single payer plans advocated by Sanders and Warren.

As someone who lives in rural Pennsylvania, I would ask for the federal government and Congress to step back and rethink these plans. We have had a great deal of federal experimentation since 2010, and frankly rural health care needs a breather.

Rural areas face difficulties such as lack of providers, distance between patients and health care facilities, and high cost-to-patient ratios because of a smaller population base. Massive new federal intrusion would most certainly come with new workability issues as well as probably trying to reinvent how people receive and pay for health care.

Rather than having another massive federal makeover of our health care system, I suggest that we let cost-saving innovations of telemedicine continue to evolve. Already, a patient can have direct consultation and diagnostic testing done without the person having to leave his or her home. The medical advances of telemedicine have been dramatic, and rural residents are and will be benefiting.

However, telemedicine does not work where there is no or little access to the internet or smart phones. This has been called the digital divide, where rural areas are disadvantaged without access to wide band width broadband. Instead of considering Medicare for all or the public option, perhaps Congress should instead focus on how to achieve universal access to broadband. That approach would certainly reduce health care costs through telemedicine, and it is more down to earth than new grand plans envisioned by some in Washington.

Granted, rural health care issues transcend whether or not telemedicine is the answer. But it is one answer that could be fully realized if Congress makes broadband a reality in rural America. Policymakers in Congress should look at the big picture and think outside the box.

Wayne Campbell is president of the Pennsylvania State Grange.

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