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Office of Rural Health

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VHA and ORH Adopt New System to Define “Rural”

The Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration (VHA) leads the nation in caring for rural Veterans. In order to do so, VHA must know where rural Veterans live to provide adequate access to care. This requires the best possible definition of “rural”.

As such, VHA recently changed how it defines urban, rural and highly rural land areas. The Rural-Urban Commuting Areas (RUCA) system replaces the current method, which is based on US Census Bureau criteria.

RUCA, developed by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has become more popular because of its sound social science basis and its adaptability for special programs. The RUCA system takes into account population density and considers how closely a community is socio-economically linked to larger urban centers. This approach is popular with social scientists as well as leading federal agencies.

The RUCA system is also more easily adapted for special programs, such as those rural health programs initiated by VHA. The Office of Rural Health (ORH) will apply the RUCA method starting October 2014. This change does not impact current programs or pilot projects currently receiving funding to improve access to care for rural Veterans.

More information, and a definition of the RUCA codes, is located on the USDA website at