November 18, 2016
No matter what side of the bloody election battle you were on, there was a word that news commentators invoked as the election night results came pouring in. It’s a word they hardly ever use, and it seemed as mystifying to them as the results. The word was “rural.” Rural America was angry. Rural America had found its voice and its candidate. And, most amazingly, rural America had headed to the polls en masse, and VOTED.
Rural Americans not only voted, they changed the course of a Presidential election. And, in so doing, they fooled the pundits and the pollsters. Why? Because rural America has been sidelined and maligned as isolated and inconsequential—an antiquated and dying version of America.
During Eastern Plumas Health Care’s battle with the state of California, when the state tried to take back skilled nursing facility payments for services already rendered, this hospital repeatedly invoked the word “rural.” And, when that wasn’t enough, we applied for and were granted a “frontier” designation. It was clear in talking with state officials that they didn’t take us seriously, didn’t see us as worth consideration—and when they were finally forced to notice us, it was clear they had no idea what life was like in our rural mountain communities.
In attempting to convince the new Covered California providers that expecting Medi-Cal patients to drive to Chico or Davis for essential, life saving care wasn’t feasible, we had to spell out the reasons why: “Imagine driving for 2 ½ hours – thirty to sixty miles of that in the snow over dangerous mountain roads,” we said, “roads that are sometimes impassable in winter. Now imagine doing that when you can’t afford gas, or you have bald tires on your car.” Every time, it was clear from their response that this scenario was completely foreign to insurance representatives and California legislators alike.
During the skilled nursing fight, however, we argued from our strengths as well as our vulnerabilities. We pointed out the strong, intrepid nature of our people. Throughout this three year battle, we became used to meeting and beating adversity. And, in one skirmish after another, we prevailed.
But after each success, it seemed we were forgotten again. And with each new fight, we’d start back at the beginning. We were convinced that California politicians didn’t pay attention to us or court our votes because there weren’t enough of us to matter to them.
In this nationwide election, however, there were more than enough of us to matter, apparently. Now, I’m not lauding the results of this election. But, I am saying that for the first time I can recall, rural America was a force that could not be taken for granted—in fact, it threw the political system on its head and left the intellectuals scrambling to save face.
In the end, they had to admit, repeatedly, that they’d underestimated rural America. They underestimated rural America because they didn’t understand the forces that shape it. They didn’t understand because they hadn’t needed to. Now, however, they do.
I would like to suggest, in this window of time during which the nation is actually listening, that we pull together in rural Plumas County one more time—this time to strike a positive note. Let’s share with our state and national politicians the good things we know about ourselves and the character of our people, as we did during the skilled nursing battle. We are a people who value family and friends and the generations that came before us in this valley, and on this mountain. We value the place itself, and we believe it and the way of life that comes with it are worth preserving.
At Eastern Plumas Health care, we intend to let our state and federal lawmakers know that we aim to protect our ability to provide quality health care to all community members, regardless of their status or ability to pay. We need to preserve the state and federal programs that allow us to provide the services most needed by our residents. I would encourage our schools, businesses, our county government—all who add to the viability of our rural way of life–to do the same.
Rural can mean caring, small can mean intimate, it can mean courageous and empathetic. It’s this sense of rural I’d like to invoke, and I hope it’s the way we see ourselves as the days and years wind forward. Further, it’s this version of rural that I think we should share with our lawmakers in Sacramento and on the national stage at a time when they are predisposed to listen. Let’s not lose the momentum this moment offers—rather, let’s use it to build a better, stronger, more caring community for ourselves in this rural place we call home. We’ve hit the system with a hammer—we’ve shown the fissures and forced a new way forward. In the words of musician and poet Leonard Cohen, who died less than two days after the election, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”