Op-Ed

Forum focused on delivered rural health care

In an era of tight budgets and strained resources, Kentucky and its rural communities can no longer afford "business as usual" in the delivery of health-care services. As health-care costs increase and health status declines, the question becomes: How can we ensure rural Kentuckians get better health care at lower costs?

More than 40 percent of Kentuckians live in rural areas. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural residents face higher rates of chronic disease, are more likely to be uninsured and have fewer providers offering nearby care. Medicaid and Medicare combined pay for the majority of health care provided in rural areas. More money isn't the prescription for change — innovation is.

Although the future of federal health-care reform remains uncertain, rural communities have promising opportunities to reshape the way health care services are delivered. As nonprofit hospitals update their community benefit plans, they have opportunities to work with local health departments who also are tasked with mapping out and addressing local health needs.

Together, with other civic leaders, they can be a powerful force for assessing and addressing the health needs of the communities they serve. Together, they can create communities that support healthy behaviors, knit together a better integrated health system and plan better care management for the chronically ill.

Large, self-insured employers — and the largest in rural Kentucky is the state government itself — also can influence the delivery of health care services, reshaping what is paid for and where care is offered. Employers, frustrated with the rise in health care costs, have already begun to take matters into their own hands: using self insurance to design their own health plans, emphasizing wellness and preventive health, and even bringing primary care and acute care clinics in-house to serve their employees. These efforts reveal a healthy appetite for change and a system that better manages costs and promotes a healthy work force.

These and other dimensions of the needed changes in rural health care delivery and the opportunities to affect these changes will be discussed at the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky's Ninth Annual Howard L. Bost Memorial Health Policy Forum — Rural Communities Taking the Lead: Innovations for a Healthy Kentucky.

The event will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at the Center for Rural Development in Somerset.

This forum will bring together state and national leaders to shine a light on the issues facing rural communities and the strategies available to tackle their health care challenges. Rather than wait for solutions from Washington, speakers will share strategies that Kentucky's civic leaders can put into place at the local, state and regional levels. Many will share ways that Kentucky is already doing this.

Keynote speaker Dr. Len Nichols founded and directed Health CEOs for Health Reform, a group that helped policymakers see that delivery system reform and health insurance reform can go together. Dr. Kavita Patel, a physician and former RAND researcher now at the Brookings Institution, brings insight on how to achieve better care and better health at lower costs.

They join experts from Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina, with practical policy strategies for positive health change in these challenging times. Smaller sessions allow forum participants to engage actively with the speakers.

Kentucky's rural health stakeholders, including businesses, community leaders, consumers of health care services, providers and policymakers, will explore health care issues and look beyond the challenges to the opportunities at hand.

The aim: to provide accessible, safe and effective health care to nearly half of Kentucky's citizens who call rural Kentucky home.

More information is available on the foundation's Web site, www.healthy-ky.org.

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