How the Federal Government Supports State and Local Efforts to Improve Rural Health: A Q&A with Tom Morris

The Millbank Memorial Fund, June 27, 2019

Tom Morris, M.P.A., is associate administrator of rural health policy for the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). With a budget of $317 million, his office oversees a wide range of activities—from conducting research and policy analysis to providing technical assistance to hospitals in danger of closing. His office also recently assumed responsibility for administering a new program that targets the federal response to the opioid crisis to the particular needs of rural communities.

Morris took part in regional meetings of the Reforming States Group, the Milbank Memorial Fund’s bipartisan network of state executive and legislative leaders. As described in our issue brief, Supporting Rural Health: Options for State Policymakers, the meetings focused on rural health concerns and spotlighted actionable solutions.

The Milbank Memorial Fund asked Morris how HRSA and other federal agencies are working to support these approaches, including health care delivery models that promote population health, rural health workforce development, and research and policy focused on rural communities.

As a group, rural residents are older and poorer than other Americans and have worse access to health care services, as well as higher mortality rates from potentially preventable conditions. Some parts of rural America have also been ravaged by “deaths of despair” from alcohol, drug overdoses, or suicide. How is the Office of Rural Health Policy working to address these multifaceted issues?

Part of what we do is to quantify these problems so we can make sure rural issues are front and center when policy issues are considered. The opioid crisis is a good example. A lot of the initial research, both at HHS and nationally, tended to focus on opioid overdose rates at the state level. We weren’t seeing a lot about what happens in rural communities. We try to fill those gaps with research and by gathering perspectives from rural communities.  Click here to read the full interview!