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Chairwoman Stabenow Opening Statement at Hearing on Opportunities and Challenges for the Rural Care Economy

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, today released the following opening statement at the hearing titled, “Rural Quality of Life: Opportunities and Challenges for the Rural Care Economy”. Live video of the hearing is available here.

Stabenow’s statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:

I call this hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry to order. Welcome to Under Secretary Torres Small and to our witnesses. It is wonderful to have you here today to discuss the opportunities and challenges for the rural care economy. Everyone deserves a great quality of life in America and quality care at every stage of life, no matter where they live.

One in five Americans live, work, and raise their families in small towns, surrounded by mom-and-pop shops, family farms, and neighbors who double as the local doctor, fire chief, mayor, or schoolteacher. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our rural communities, putting a strain on families, our workforce, and our health care system. And the opioid epidemic continues to take the lives of our friends and neighbors. But as a native of rural Clare, Michigan, I can tell you firsthand that rural America remains resilient and resourceful. 

Building a sustainable economy starts with reliable access to childcare, elder care, and health care, including mental health and substance abuse services. We all know a small business owner who sets store hours based on if – and when – they have someone available to take care of their young children or aging parents. So it’s a godsend for their growing business when their local government and neighboring businesses team up to build a new childcare center with the help of the USDA.

And it’s even better for the small business owner when her folks can stay in the very community they grew up in, now that their local hospital has the modernized equipment and telehealth options to expand treatments, or their local community center gets new digital tools to stay connected to friends and family. That’s exactly what we’ve seen in Alcona County, Michigan where USDA Rural Development resources helped connect seniors with their friends and family through technology. Loneliness is tough on our seniors – but USDA is helping us beat it. We all know someone whose life has been changed by the opioid epidemic.

As they work on their recovery, they may need to lean on new telemedicine services for addiction treatments because they can’t get to the clinic three towns over. We all have a friend who is spread thin, driving all around the county to get critical community health services, taking up hours of their day, and spending a lot on gas. So it makes a big difference when they can get their healthcare needs met in one place.

In my home state of Michigan, for example, Allegan County residents worked with USDA to purchase and renovate a building to consolidate the county’s medical, dental, behavioral health, and other care management services. And they were able to become a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic and provide more people with mental health services and addiction treatment. 

And we all know a farmer who can’t take time to check in on their own health – physical or mental – when they’re trying keep the family farm afloat 24/7. The work the American Farm Bureau Federation does in its Farm State of Mind program in partnership with Michigan State University, for example, is taking the stigma out of mental health treatment so farmers know that they can and should seek the help they need.

I ask unanimous consent that the statement from the American Farm Bureau Federation be entered into the record. Without objection. So ordered. As our witnesses will attest, strengthening the care economy helps rural communities thrive. And I’m sure Under Secretary Torres Small will share more about how USDA is a trusted partner with the local  communities they serve.

I ask unanimous consent to enter into the record statements of support from the Rural Policy Research Institute and the Bipartisan Policy Center. Without objection. So ordered. With that, I’ll turn to Ranking Member Boozman for any opening remarks he’d like to make.