Today, on National Rural Health Day, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced more than $10 million in grants through two U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs to improve access to health care for rural Americans across the nation. The Secretary also highlighted initiatives created by the Affordable Care Act that specifically address critical health needs in rural communities.

“Delivering these programs to rural communities that often do not have access to quality, affordable medical and educational services has tremendous economic and social benefits,” Vilsack said. “They also mean that people who live and work in rural areas will not have to travel long distances for specialized health care services. These investments mean that students in rural high schools will have educational opportunities often not available outside urban areas.”

Through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) program, USDA has helped hundreds of rural communities deliver care in remote areas since it began two decades ago. Today, USDA’s Rural Development is awarding $20.4 million in grants that will provide rural Americans access to medical services, improve educational opportunities, and support Native American communities. Fiscal Year 2014 Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant recipients

Rural residents are more likely to report a fair to poor health status and have higher rates of health complications, morbidity and mortality due to challenges associated with low levels of employment and education, geographic barriers and isolation, lack of quality nutrition and health education, and lack of access to health care.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is awarding 12 grants totaling more than $1.4 million to universities aimed at enhancing the quality of life in rural areas through improved health and safety education efforts. NIFA funded the grants through the Rural Health and Safety Education program which addresses these challenges by developing programs that provide the necessary health information to rural residents. The program has three main focus areas: 1) individual and family nutrition and health education; 2) farm safety education; and 3) rural health leadership development education.

Projects funded in fiscal year 2014 focus on a diversity of rural health and safety issues, from diabetes education, obesity prevention, and physical activity and healthy nutrition education, to eco-healthy child care promotion, and rural expansion of 4-H Healthy Living program. Fiscal Year 2014 Rural Health and Safety Education Grant recipients

In addition to today’s announcements, Secretary Vilsack encouraged rural Americans to take advantage of the Health Insurance Marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act and discussed the health care reform law’s specific benefits for rural communities.

“Rural residents have higher rates of chronic conditions.  This can be exacerbated by a lack of doctors or clinics in rural communities,” Secretary Vilsack continued. “The Affordable Care Act is improving the health of rural communities and giving all families the security they deserve. No one should go without healthcare because of where they live, or be forced to leave the communities they love to get the coverage they need.”

Rural Americans suffer from higher rates of chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.  The Affordable Care Act has taken steps to address the unique challenges rural communities face when it comes to getting the health care they need.

One in five uninsured Americans lives in a rural area, and yet on average only 10 percent of the nation’s physicians practice in these communities. The Affordable Care Act has significantly increased the size of the National Health Service Corps, which offers scholarships and loan repayment to health practitioners in return for practicing in rural communities and other underserved areas. More than 3,500 Corps members now serve in rural areas, and an average of 86 percent of them will remain in their communities even after completing their service.

The Affordable Care Act also invests significantly in expanding services at community health centers, where 7.5 million rural Americans get access to primary and preventive care. That comes on top of the more than $3 billion USDA has invested since 2009 to strengthen health infrastructure in rural areas, building rural hospitals and health clinics and expanding access to health care in remote rural areas through telemedicine.

Not only can a lack of health insurance coverage help lead to high rates of chronic conditions, it threatens rural families economic health as well.  Before the Affordable Care Act passed, the average rural family paid nearly 50% of all health costs out of pocket. One in five farmers is in debt because of medical bills. Uninsured individuals living in rural areas are able to use the Marketplaces to compare qualified health plan insurance options based on price, benefits, quality, and other factors with a clear picture of premiums and cost-sharing amounts to help them choose the qualified health insurance plan that best fits their needs.

Open Enrollment for the Health Insurance Marketplace began Nov. 15, 2014, and runs through Feb. 15, 2015. Those who have plans can continue them without re-enrolling. However, consumers are encouraged to visit HealthCare.gov to review and compare health plan options and find out if they are eligible for financial assistance, which can help pay monthly premiums and reduce out-of-pocket costs when receiving services. In order to have coverage effective on Jan. 1, 2015, consumers must enroll or update their coverage by December 15.

Consumers can find local help at: Localhelp.healthcare.gov or call the Federally-facilitated Marketplace Call Center at 1-800-318-2596. TTY users should call 1-855-889-4325. Translation services are available. The call is free.

To preview plans in your area, visit: www.healthcare.gov/see-plans/

For more information about Health Insurance Marketplaces, visit: www.healthcare.gov/marketplace