Rural Pennsylvania: Building Healthier Communities for the People Who Power America

By Bob Morgan, Pennsylvania State Director USDA Rural Development

As we celebrate National Rural Health Day this year, we are reminded that a strong community is rooted in its people. The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to serving those who live in the rural areas of this country, like the small towns and communities right here in Pennsylvania.

At the United States Department of Agriculture, we are hard at work offering the resources to the rural and agricultural communities that feed and fuel our nation and provide the everyday essentials upon which America depends.

As I’ve traveled across Pennsylvania, I’ve seen firsthand the unique challenges people in rural communities and remote parts of the state have in accessing the health resources they need and deserve.

“More than 130 rural hospitals have closed over the past decade, and over 600 additional rural hospitals — more than 30% of all rural hospitals in the country — are at risk of closing in the near future,” according to a report from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform.

It is part of my job to see what we can do as an agency to address problems such as this.

At USDA Rural Development, we are committed to making sure that people, no matter where they live, have access to high-quality and reliable health care services like urgent care, primary care, and dental care. That’s why I’ve been a proud champion of programs like the Emergency Rural Health Care Grants, created by President Biden’s historic legislative package, the American Rescue Plan Act.

In the past year, this program has helped rural health care organizations across the commonwealth purchase supplies, deliver food assistance, renovate health care facilities, and provide people with reliable medical testing and treatment.

These funds are helping save lives every day. For example, in April of this year, USDA awarded 18 Pennsylvania healthcare organizations a total of $10.5 million through our Emergency Rural Health Care Grant program. In Pittston, Pa., the ambulance service association received $226,000 of these funds for necessary lifesaving equipment such as heart monitors, automatic CPR machines, and loading devices for the ambulances.

On a larger scale, on Nov. 21, 2021, USDA partnered with St. Luke’s Health Network to open the first hospital in Carbon County in 65 years. The trauma-4 facility treated 17,324 emergency care patients thus far this year, thanks to a $98.5 million Community Facilities direct USDA loan investment for the project and a $16 million guaranteed loan.

Local healthcare officials said they are confident the three-story, 80-patient-room, 160,000-square-foot facility, has redefined health care access, convenience, and quality in northeastern Pennsylvania. Again, we are committed to saving lives and improving quality of life in our local rural communities.

We also know that increasing access to telemedicine and distance learning in rural Pennsylvania is critical to building healthier and more resilient communities.

People in remote parts of the state often need to travel greater distances to see a health care provider, are less likely to have access to high-speed internet to utilize telehealth services and are more likely to live in an area that has a shortage of doctors, dentists, and mental health providers.

Through programs like the Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants Program, we are making it easier for people living in rural areas to access health care services remotely. In 2022, Rural Development funded three DLT projects in Pennsylvania that impacted more than 80,000 people in central and western Pennsylvania. Our funding share for the three projects totaled more than $1 million.

Health is about much more than medical care. Access to modern, reliable water and wastewater infrastructure is a critical necessity for the health and well-being of every American.

In Pennsylvania, we continue to work hand-in-hand with our partners and local community leaders to promote a healthy community and environment through our Water and Environmental Programs.

These programs help rural communities obtain the technical assistance and capital financing necessary to develop clean and reliable drinking water and waste disposal systems. Safe drinking water and sanitary waste disposal systems are vital not only to public health, but also to the economic vitality of rural America.

Through these programs, we make sure people, children and families across the state have clean water and safe sewer systems that prevent pollution and runoff.

For example, in March the South Wayne Water and Sewer Authority received a Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant of $14,879,000 to upgrade their wastewater treatment plant for their public sewer system. The plant currently serves residential communities located in Salem and Lake Townships, Pa. The plant is more than 40 years old, and the components have reached the end of their useful life.

USDA Rural Development is a partner who invests in keeping rural people healthy. Join us this National Rural Health Day, Thursday, Nov. 17 as we celebrate the power of rural.  You can learn more about our programs by visiting our website or by calling 717-237-2153.