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Hyde-Smith recommends establishing CDC Office Rural Health

Citing rural health disparities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Sen.Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), of Brookhaven, Wednesday recommended establishing an Office of Rural Health within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin correcting those inequities.

Hyde-Smith questioned CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at an appropriations subcommittee hearing titled, “Review of the FY2022 Budget Blueprint for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted numerous aspects of our health care systems that need improvement, one example being health disparities Americans living in rural areas face.  While the CDC has undertaken efforts to address the health disparities for rural Americans, there is no entity within CDC tasked specifically with this work,” Hyde-Smith said.

“I believe establishing a new Office of Rural Health within the Centers for Disease Control would be an important way to support rural communities through the end of this pandemic and to prepare for future public health crises,” she said.

Hyde-Smith recommended that an Office of Rural Health should be empowered to ensure the work of all CDC programs addressing the health needs of the 57 million Americans living in rural communities.

Walensky agreed that rural health infrastructure needs improvements, including disease agnostic infrastructure, workforce development and training, and broader telehealth capabilities.  Her testimony also pointed to leveraging existing cooperative agreement mechanisms to support public health jobs and to attract personnel to rural and underserved areas.

Walensky also agreed with Hyde-Smith that state health departments need greater flexibility to use CDC funding to meet state-specific needs.  The Senator cited the CDC’s “highly categorical” distribution of funding that ties resource uses to specific diseases or purposes.

“I am concerned that restricting CDC money to specific activities prevents states from being able to address issues that vary from state to state, and make it difficult to respond efficiently to emerging challenges like COVID-19.  I believe greater flexibility on funding might allow states to better target resources to the states’ specific needs as well as to respond more effectively to emerging problems,” Hyde-Smith said.

“I would just echo your thoughts,” Walensky responded.  “Yes, one of the things that has been challenging for us at CDC is the line items that go to X or Y, when in fact we need the infrastructure, the disease-agnostic infrastructure …  that it’s flexible enough to be able to be sure each of the communities can scale up for what they need.”

The Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing will be among those conducted to review the Biden administration’s budget request for agencies within its jurisdiction.  The President is scheduled to formally submit his FY2022 budget request to Congress on May 27.