Depression and suicide are an overlooked health crisis in our rural communities. Washingtonians living outside urban centers are left with fewer resources to address mental health issues and face unique hurdles in accessing those resources that are available. House Bill 1196 and its companion Senate Bill 5325 will help to expand behavioral health services available to our rural communities.

According to 2017 statistics from the Washington State Department of Health, the suicide rate in small towns/isolated rural areas was 21.2 per 100,000 people. This was about 24% higher than the average for the entire state. Rural communities are challenged with isolation, lack of access to care, and cultural stigmatizations around depression and suicide.

While Washington state has an overall higher rate of behavioral health providers per population than the U.S., 35 of Washington’s 39 counties are federally designated as Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas.

Farmers and agricultural workers face additional stressors due to unpredictable weather, crop failures, impacts of global trade policies and many other factors beyond their control. This further compounds existing mental health challenges in rural communities.

To address these challenges, Washington has begun requiring telehealth services be reimbursed at the same rate as in-person care. Unfortunately, many rural Washingtonians lack adequate broadband access needed to take advantage of these services and current legislation excludes audio-only services from these requirements. An Emergency Order, issued by the Office of the Insurance Commissioner in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has temporarily allowed audio-only services, but a permanent change is needed to ensure Washington’s rural communities continue to have needed access to mental health services.

House Bill 1196 and Senate Bill 5325 recognize the unique needs of Washington’s rural agricultural communities and expand our telehealth program through the inclusion of audio-only services. This legislation has the potential to save lives and improve the health of farmers and farmworkers across the state. Those interested in this issue can help raise awareness by contacting your representatives and urging them to support this legislation.

Jerod Morris

Spokane, Wash.

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