Improving Rural Access to Care

Seminars and forums on rural health care in West Virginia have been held regularly for several years. But one scheduled for next week will be different because of – you guessed it – Obamacare.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee will be hosting the forum from 1-3 p.m. Monday at WVU’s Erickson Alumni Center. The event is open to the public.

Plans are for the forum to focus on the question of what is needed to provide quality health care to residents of rural areas, not just here but throughout the country.

Here in the Northern Panhandle, most people take access to quality health care for granted. But things are different in some other regions, where there has been concern for many years about shortages of physicians and long drives to clinics and hospitals.

As a whole, West Virginia does not seem to have a shortage of either physicians or hospitals. A Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2011 found the state has four hospital beds for every 1,000 residents. The national average is 2.6 per 1,000. Only four other states had better ratios.

Also according to the foundation, West Virginia had 4,750 physicians in 2012 – about one for every 379 residents. The national average was one doctor per 371 people.

Again, however, those are statewide numbers. They do not reflect shortages of health care professionals and facilities in rural regions of West Virginia.

Initiatives to improve care in rural areas have been under way for many years, with some success.

But now comes Obamacare. Much about how health care is paid for and how providers do their jobs is changing.

For example, nearly 108,000 Mountain State residents have been added to the Medicaid program since last fall. No one really knows how that enormous increase in the number of people with health insurance will affect access to care and the quality of it. There has been some speculation the change will result in an enormous jump in demand for health care – without an accompanying increase in the number of providers.

McKinley and Gee are to be commended for hosting the forum next week, both to consider rural health care challenges that have existed for years and new ones that may result from Obamacare.