Louisiana Officials Tell Their Stories to Obama Cabinet

HealthLeaders Media Staff, July 22, 2009

When Hurricane Gustav blew through Louisiana last August, Mary Ellen Pratt got to say what several other health facility CEOs in the region couldn't.

The new generator serving their new St. James Parish Hospital, a 20-bed critical access facility in the town of Lutcher along the Mississippi River, didn't stop working.

Pratt got the rare opportunity to tell that success story and several others this week to five top Obama Administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who conducted what many said was the first rural health tour of its kind.

And many rural healthcare officials believe that the tour, one in a series of trips Washington officials will make to rural settings this summer, and last week's nomination of Regina Benjamin, MD, of Bayou La Batra, signals a new day when rural healthcare is finally getting a front seat at the federal banquet.

As part of the tour Monday, Sebelius, (who is from the largely rural state of Kansas) joined a forum down the road, in the town of Reserve in adjacent St. John the Baptist Parish, with three other administration secretaries: Tom Vilsack of the Department of Agriculture, Hilda Solis of the Department of Labor, and Eric Shinseki of the Department of Veteran's Affairs. Also along was Mary Wakefield, administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration. They wanted to see and hear first hand the challenges rural providers face.

The officials listened during a 90-minute community forum as those in a standing-room-only audience relayed their fears about growing older with no insurance, no money, chronic conditions, and poor access to care.

In turn, the administrators discussed their hope that many of the problems and disadvantages of providing health care in rural settings will be softened if key provisions in health reform proposal can ever be passed.

There should be money for telemedicine installation, so patients would have the benefit of specialists without having to travel long distances.

Hospitals and doctors and clinics should have electronic medical records.

In St. John the Baptist Parish, the Cabinet officials heard that one family practitioner is the only doctor to serve the entire town, and he was said to be 80 years old, Wakefield recalled.

So there will be about $500 million in recovery money to greatly increase the size of the National Health Service Corps to encourage physicians to set up practices in rural towns they otherwise would ignore.

Wakefield, former director of the University of North Dakota's Center for Rural Health, says the tour "reinforced for me the importance of this administration's commitment to rural health."

What the Cabinet officials heard and saw in conversations with the providers is the fragile nature of the rural health care workforce, she says. The need for mental health, dental health and primary care providers became much more real "up close and personal."

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