Pete Buttigieg releases health care plan for rural America

By Vanessa Yurkevich, CNN

(CNN) -- In a new plan aimed at improving health care access for rural America, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg on Friday proposed waiving visa requirements to attract immigrant doctors, increasing telehealth services by expanding high speed internet and creating a new office within the Department of Health and Human Services.

"The fact is if you live in a rural part of our country, you are more likely to get sicker and die younger than people living in cities," the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate wrote in the plan. "That is wrong."

Buttigieg is one of many Democratic candidates to release policy plans aimed at rural America this week, as many of them spend time in Iowa this weekend.

Rural Americans are often at a disadvantage when it comes to access to health care, some times having to travel very far to seek the medical care they need.

Friday's proposal is one part of Buttigieg's policies focused on rural America. He plans to release more proposals next week.

In the health care plan, Buttigieg called for protecting the Affordable Care Act "from Republican attacks," and implementing his proposal for "Medicare for all who want it," which would create a public option while maintaining the private insurance industry.

Buttigieg also proposes hiring immigrant doctors to work in rural communities by expanding "the Conrad 30," a program that waives a visa requirement "that foreign doctors return to their home country for two years before re-entering the United States to work." This would allow doctors to work in under-served or rural communities in that time, according to Buttigieg's plan. He would also double the size of the program and allow for spouses of visa holders to gain employment authorization.

The plan also calls for eliminating the cap on another type of visa to ensure that immigrant doctors who work in under-served areas for five years can obtain a green card.

Care for veterans, minorities and pregnant women in rural communities also are highlighted in the plan. Buttigieg plans to reduce maternal mortality rates by funding pre-maternity homes and offering subsidies for housing and transportation. Details also include expanding Medicaid coverage for one-year post-partum. Currently, Medicaid typically only covers 60 days of post-partum care.

For those Americans unable to travel to seek medical care, Buttigieg proposed expanding telehealth, which allows doctors to treat patients through video conference. The lack of rural broadband has made this practice a challenge, but Buttigieg has proposed expanding high speed internet and broadband across the country by the end of his first term, an issue he plans to expand upon in another upcoming proposal for rural communities. He will also double the funding for the FCC Rural Health Care Program to $1 billion including to "make it easier for a doctor in one state to virtually treat a patient in another by amending licensure for virtual care programs."

Communities with health disparities who come up with creative plans for targeted investments will be designated Health Equity Zones or HEZs, the plan details. This program will be run by a new Office of Health Equity and Justice (OHEJ) within the Department of Health and Human Services. "HEZs will receive financial and technical resources to help reduce or eliminate high priority local health disparities," the plan states.

Buttigieg also outlined the concept before in his "Douglass Plan," aimed at African American voters. The Health Equity Zones under that plan would be in areas of health disparities in communities with a history of economic and social marginalization. Similar to Buttigieg's rural health plan, funding to these Health Equity Zones under the Douglass Plan would only continue with proof of concrete plans to address health disparities.

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