Keith Mueller smiles as he leans back in his chair and imagines the work that lies in store for his team of rural health policy researchers.
“We are seeing one of the most dramatic transformations in rural health care delivery and finance that we’ve seen in a very long time,” says Mueller, who directs the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis and heads the Department of Health Management and Policy in the University of Iowa College of Public Health. “And our center is right in the middle of it.”
Mueller refers to two new cooperative agreements awarded to the center by the Office of Rural Health Policy (ORHP) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The first, a four-year, $660,000 per year cooperative agreement, will ascertain the effects of payment and other policies on health care organizations and health plans in rural places. The Rural Health System Analysis and Technical Assistance cooperative agreement also provides $600,000 per year for three years.
“These awards give us a foundation for our work for quite some time,” adds Mueller. “But what we’re really excited about is the substance of the work—a continuous learning experience with the chance to really get engaged in a field undergoing major change. It doesn’t get better than that.”
With the funding from these awards, Mueller and his colleagues will assess the impact of state and national policies on rural health, such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), and help rural health care providers take advantage of opportunities to sustain and improve local services.
Mueller points to a telehealth project as one example of how this funding could lead to quicker, more effective delivery of health care in Iowa and other rural service areas.
“Telehealth allows a medical professional to deliver health care services at a distance, using electronic and telecommunications devices,” explains Marcia Ward, leader of the telehealth project and professor of health management and policy in the UI College of Public Health. “This technology holds considerable promise for bettering care in rural communities—increased access to services, enhanced quality of care, and avoidance of transfers for patients. This project will identify approaches that could aid the spread of this effective delivery method and get it into the hands of those who need it most.”
Mueller is also quick to give credit to the strength of his team, which includes not only UI College of Public Health faculty members A. Clinton MacKinney, Thomas Vaughn, Ward, and Xi Zhu, but collaborations with Washington University, the nonprofit organization Stratis Health, and health care consulting firm Stroudwater Associates as well.
“This team is one of best,” concludes Mueller. “Together, we are uniquely qualified to contribute to public policy and health system change by helping rural providers take full advantage of opportunities to sustain and improve local services. In the end, that’s what matters.”
“The RUPRI Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis will continue to serve a critical role in analyzing the effects of policy on 62 million residents of rural communities in the U.S.,” says Tom Morris, Associate Administrator of the Health Resources Services Administration’s Office of Rural Health Policy. “Issues of health care delivery and finance are a critical focus of the Office of Rural Health Policy, and we know that Dr. Mueller and his group will continue to provide policy makers with the tools needed to make the best decisions, based on the best research.”