Governor Parson hosts first-ever Rural Health Summit in Bolivar

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BOLIVAR, Mo. The 57th Governor of the state is a rural Missourian.

And that's why Mike Parson, a native of Wheatland and longtime resident of Bolivar where he owns a farm, brought together some 200 heath care professionals from all over the state to Citizens Memorial Hospital in Bolivar for the first-ever Rural Health Care Summit to discuss the challenges rural areas face from a lack of available workforce and hospitals to Medicaid.

Just in the past four years, six rural hospitals have closed their doors including facilities in Osceola and Mt. Vernon. And 44 counties in the state don't even have a hospital. Smoking (24.9% vs. 21.6%) and obesity rates (31.1% vs. 29.9%) are higher in rural areas than urban areas as are the death rates from heart disease (225.4 per 100,000 vs. 193.5 per 100,000) and cancer (190.3 per 100,000 vs. 180.3 vs. 100,000). The life expectancy of rural Missourians is over a year less than those in urban areas (76.5 years vs. 77.9 years) and urban areas have over four times more physicians (5,379 vs. 1.246).

Karen White, is a healthcare professional in southeast Missouri where two rural hospitals have closed.

"I personally knew people who have died because they did not have access to the care they needed to remain alive," she told the crowd.

Another major topic at the summit was Medicaid as the governor introduced Todd Richardson, a former member of the general assembly, who will oversee a revamping of a system that's being stretched to the limit.

"It's one of the largest budget items in the state of Missouri," Parson said. "And when you start talking $300 or 400 million every year, you can't sustain that."

"If we do nothing to shore up and to improve the sustainability of our Medicaid program, it will continue to strain nearly every other area of the state budget," Richardson added. "We're talking K-12 education, higher education, infrastructure, economic development. All of those things are going to be impacted."

"He's guaranteed me he can fix it in short order, so we're excited about that," Parson joked to the crowd when introducing Richardson as the man who's tasked with the major task of fixing the Medicaid system.

But Parson was serious in pointing out that it's not all gloom and doom, pointing out that the very place the summit was taking place, Citizens Memorial Hospital, was a shining example of a small rural hospital that has not only survived through the tough times. Since its opening in 1982 CMH has been able to expand its services over the years to become the biggest employer in the area adding all types of services including specialty clinics and nursing facilities.

"One of the things we struggled with at the start was just to get physicians here because a private physician couldn't survive on his own," explained Don Babb, the CEO of Citizens Memorial Hospital and its Healthcare Foundation. "So we've built 34 clinics now and the physicians who work with us are employed by us. That gives them stability and that gives us stability for our patient growth. Last month we did 26,000 clinic visits. That's a lot in a rural area."

And the purpose of the summit is to look at successful models like CMH and try to duplicate it elsewhere.

"We know the solutions," White said. "We just have to get our heads together and figure it all out (in implementing it)."

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