Traverse City Record-Eagle


December 30, 2013

Rural Michigan faces many barriers to health care

DETROIT (AP) — Sue Cook is going to the ends of the earth, or what feels like it, to help people try to sign up for insurance under the new federal health care law.

The retired nurse is director of a free health clinic in Sanilac County, the largest county in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula at more than 960 square miles. And Cook, who also travels the big county in the state’s rural Thumb region with a laptop to navigate the troubled federal health care exchange, is finding just how long the road to success will be.

“There are many challenges we’re facing right now,” said Cook, who leads an all-volunteer team of health care professionals at Caring Hearts Clinic in Marlette, 65 miles north of Detroit. “You’ve got somebody in the northeast part of the county that has no transportation to get here to even sign up.

“We’re finding that even if I go to the far end of the county, there’s the issue of not having Wi-Fi to hook up to,” she said. “Those are huge hurdles for us to try to conquer in a large county like this.”

The issues in Sanilac County are common among Michigan’s many rural counties, which have some of the highest rates of uninsured residents and are coupled with concerns about accessibility and doctor shortages. Sanilac has the state’s 27th highest rate of uninsured residents at nearly 16 percent, and the Upper Peninsula’s Mackinac County has the highest uninsured population — the state’s only county above 20 percent. According to the most recent Census numbers, Michigan’s overall uninsured rate is 13.6 percent.

The stories of Sanilac, Mackinac and their rural county counterparts underscore broader challenges in rolling out President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, which aims to cut the number of uninsured by expanding low-income health coverage and the new insurance marketplaces where people can buy plans. Problems have plagued the website since its October launch, and enrollment still lags behind projections despite improvements.

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