Durbin Highlights Efforts To Address Rural Health Workforce Shortages On The Senate Floor

Following the August work period and travels across Illinois, Durbin spoke on the need to find a bipartisan solution to address these shortages

WASHINGTON  In a speech on the Senate floor today, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) highlighted the dire need to address the rural health care provider shortage that is harming communities across Illinois and the country.  During the August work period, Durbin traveled across the state to meet with hospital leaders, public health officials, and other health care providers who all spoke about the challenges facing rural hospitals and clinics, and the impact on patients accessing care.  Nationwide, rural hospitals are struggling—half operate with financial losses, and more than 300 are at “immediate risk” of closure. 

“These small town hospitals are really the lifeline for these communities.  They're great sources of pride and employment.  They're there for critical medical care and God forbid you lose one. It really is devastating to a community,” said Durbin.  “But my number one takeaway from hospitals in Chicago, the suburbs, and downstate was very simple: we are facing a dramatic shortage of health care providers—doctors and nurses, dentists and mental health providers, EMTs and lab techs.  Across the country, we face a shortfall of 120,000 doctors over the next decade.  And a recent survey found that 100,000 nurses left the field during the pandemic, with another 800,000 planning to retire soon.  This is particularly dire in rural communities.” 

During his speech, Durbin spoke on his Rural Hospital Closure Relief Act, legislation he introduced with Senator James Lankford (R-OK) that would support financially vulnerable rural hospitals facing risk of closure.  The legislation would update Medicare’s “Critical Access Hospital” (CAH) designation so more rural hospitals can qualify for this financial lifeline and continue to serve their communities with quality, affordable health care services.

During the August work period, Durbin met with leaders of Shawnee Health, a community health center in Carbondale that treats nearly 50,000 low-income patients each year.  They have a waiting list with more than 120 children to access advanced dental care, most of whom are under eight years old. 

“This means that a three-year-old girl in southern Illinois who has trouble sleeping because of her severe tooth decay, has to wait more than a year to have a surgical extraction,” said Durbin.  “Here’s another story they shared with me about a 4-year-old boy with an abscessed tooth… His mother tried for months to get him to a dentist who could relieve his pain, but had been unable to get in to see someone.  The family was from outside the general service area of Carbondale and traveled a few hours for the appointment… After the procedure was completed, the young boy began to cry, and our dentist asked him what was wrong and all the little boy could say was, ‘thank you.’  Not only was his pain gone, but the stressful journey he endured was, as well.”

Currently, the U.S. ranks 43rd in the world for the number of dentists per capita.  In Illinois, 10 of the 102 counties have only a single dentist.  In Lawrence County, Illinois, there is only one dentist for 15,000 people—that’s 11 times worse than the national average.  During his speech, Durbin called on all stakeholders to come together and address these shortages.

Durbin continued, “Thankfully, there is a federal program that might help.  It’s called the National Health Service Corps (NHSC).  It provides scholarship and loan repayment to doctors, nurses, dentists, and mental health providers who work in rural and urban areas of need.  It is the primary federal program intended to build the pipeline of health care providers and address shortage areas.” 

Nationwide, there are 20,000 professionals, including 1,000 health professionals in Illinois, serving under the NHSC—treating 21 million patients.  Unfortunately, the mandatory funding for this program will expire at the end of this month.  Durbin’s Restoring America’s Health Care Workforce and Readiness Act with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) will reauthorize and increase funding for NHSC.  Durbin also authored a provision in the American Rescue Plan to invest $1 billion into the NHSC, and has introduced theRural America Health Corps Act with Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

“The National Health Service Corps is the strongest program we have in America to tackle the shortage of dentists, doctors, and nurses.  The Senate HELP Committee is negotiating this program now and I urge my Republican colleagues to join Democrats and do something,” said Durbin.

Durbin concluded by highlighting the need to support rural EMS agencies which first responders depend on.  Durbin partnered with former Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) to create a program in the Farm Bill called the SIREN Act.  Thanks to the SIREN Act, Congress has sent $38 million to EMS agencies across rural America—including in Illinois.

“Now that Senator Roberts has retired, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) and I are working on the bill together on a bipartisan bill basis to reauthorize this program… I hope it can pass the Senate this month.  The solutions to many of our pressing health care challenges are in hand.  The question is whether we can find a bipartisan commitment to move them forward.  I sincerely hope we can,” Durbin concluded.

In May, Durbin unveiled his “Roadmap to Grow Illinois’ Rural Health Workforce”—a partnership with hospitals, community health centers, medical and nursing schools, community colleges, dentists, physicians, and nurses that organizes efforts and provides new funding to address health care workforce shortages and staffing crises in rural Illinois. The Roadmap focuses on: (1) pipelines to recruit middle/high-school students into health careers; (2) expanding capacity of clinical education programs; and (3) enhancing recruitment to rural areas.

Video of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Audio of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here.

Footage of Durbin’s remarks on the Senate floor is available here for TV Stations.