Rural Americans have a tough time getting and affording health care, and they need health care reform, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Tuesday.
"A lot of rural Americans are self-employed and work for family businesses, including family farms," she said during a conference call with reporters. "A lot of them have to buy insurance on the individual market, where they don't have many choices and they have extremely high prices."
Ms. Sebelius said rural residents have a hard time finding primary care doctors, and noted a new study that shows two-thirds of medically underserved areas are rural.
Federal reform efforts would offer loan repayments to doctors who set up practices in underserved areas, she said. Reform also would allow people to group together to buy insurance and eliminate co-pays for preventative care, she said.
John Oxendine, Georgia's insurance and safety fire commissioner, said Tuesday that he knew that rural areas lack adequate medical care "without commissioning a study," but he didn't support the details of proposed reform.
Mr. Oxendine touted his department's telemedicine program, which allows doctors in cities such as Atlanta and Augusta, Ga., to see patients anywhere in the state through the Internet.
He said eliminating co-pays is "probably going to do more harm than good." He argued that ending co-pays won't increase access to doctors, but it will raise the price of care because of higher demand.
"It really sounds a lot more like a gimmick," he said.
Still, Logan Boss, spokesman for the Northwest Georgia Public Health District, said some of the secretary's suggestions "could be quite effective" in attracting doctors to the area and making care more affordable.
He cited Chattooga County as a county with a "very small" number of physicians.
"You can count them on one hand," he said.
Ray Ford, CEO of Copper Basin Medical Center in Polk County, Tenn., said loan repayments could be especially useful in attracting doctors.
"I know doctors that come out of medical school, their residency, with $300,000 worth of debt," he said. "You can't be a primary care doctor getting paid basically cost by Medicare and Medicaid and nothing by a lot of your patients that need you and make up your debt payment."
Christopher Garrett, spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance, said the department had no position on Secretary Sebelius' remarks.