As the midterm election season ramps up, the Biden administration wants rural Americans to know it’ll be spending a lot of money to improve healthcare in rural areas.
It has tasked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with delivering the message that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed long-standing problems with healthcare infrastructure in remote parts of the country and pushed many rural health providers to the brink.
Vilsack spoke to KHN ahead of an announcement Wednesday that the Agriculture Department has awarded $43 million in grants to 93 rural healthcare providers and community groups in 22 states. Biden administration Cabinet members are fanning out across the country to promote the benefits of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act and a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package to rural Americans.
“The healthcare industry, particularly in rural places, was stressed by virtue of either not having adequate resources to deal with the virus or having a circumstance where they just didn’t have the capacity in terms of personnel or equipment or materials,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack, who recently tested positive for COVID, didn’t travel to Pennsylvania for Wednesday’s announcement. He said his symptoms are mild and he’s continuing to work.
The Biden administration’s push into the American heartland comes as midterm election campaign season gets underway. Leading Democrats have said their party can’t afford to lose more votes from the nation’s core, particularly if they want to maintain control of the evenly divided Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris can cast tiebreaking votes.
Although urban voters overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden in the 2020 election, rural voters backed Donald Trump 2-to-1, according to the Pew Research Center. In February, Montana Sen. Jon Tester criticized fellow Democrats, saying they didn’t show up enough in Middle America. He even located it for them — “the area between the two mountain ranges, the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains.” In the high-stakes Senate contest in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a leading Democratic candidate, told The Associated Press recently that his party can’t afford to ignore voters from rural areas.
Democrats’ rural problems reflect the divide among voters, which intensified during the pandemic as people argued over what COVID-related rules they should have to live by. That split can be seen in COVID vaccination rates. As of March, urban counties in 46 states had higher COVID vaccination rates than their rural counterparts, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Biden administration recently unveiled a “rural playbook” that touts the billions of dollars the infrastructure law will funnel into areas with far-flung resources. Projects include expanding high-speed internet, creating clean drinking water and modern waste systems, spurring good-paying jobs — and, in the case of Wednesday’s Agriculture Department announcement, improving access to healthcare.