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State snubs healthcare meeting

POSTED November 30, 2012 9:10 p.m.

A briefing intended to collect testimony and share information on healthcare challenges in rural California was overshadowed by the absence of state representatives.

The meeting, helmed by Assemblymember Kristin Olsen (R – Modesto), who chairs the California Legislative Rural Caucus, welcomed speakers from non-profits, health clinics, and hospitals – but not the State of California.

“The state decided not to show up,” Olsen said.

Representatives from the State Department of Health and Human Services were scheduled to speak on the implementation process for the Affordable Care Act and the pending elimination of Healthy Families, which will see children’s care absorbed into Medi-Cal.

But on Wednesday, state officials said they would not be attending, offering no explanation for their absence. This is the second time in the last month the State has cancelled on a rural healthcare meeting, Olsen said.

“Obviously I was extremely disappointed, quite irritated to be honest, because I think it just shows how hard it is to get the attention of state leaders on rural issues,” Olsen said.

Olsen’s sentiments were echoed by Steve Barrow, Executive Director of the California State Rural Health Care Association, a lobbying non-profit which organized Friday’s briefing.

“It’s indicative of the lack of focus from the Capitol,” Barrow said.

More than that, Barrow continued, it’s indicative of a lack of understanding as to how important rural California is to the state.

More than 85 percent of California’s geographic landmass is classified as rural. The state’s rural population, when tallied together, is on par with that of Los Angeles and San Diego combined.

Perhaps most shockingly, one out of every 60 Americans lives in rural California.

“We are a rural state,” Barrow said.

And yet legislators continue to snub rural areas, holding important healthcare meetings almost exclusively in urban population centers, Barrow said.

That’s despite pressing healthcare needs in rural areas, where residents are generally poorer, less likely to be insured, and sicker than their urban counterparts.

Compounding the issue is a dearth of qualified rural physicians. Where urban areas have one doctor per 2,000 residents, rural areas have closer to one per 3,500. Some rural Californians live more than 250 miles from the nearest hospital.

Friday’s event, at Modesto’s Centre Plaza, sought to find solutions to this problem and others.

One speaker, Dr. John Blossom, suggested increasing the number of both medical residency programs and medical schools in rural areas. Doctors would build the needed cultural and language skills in the rural communities, Blossom said, increasing the overall pool of rural physicians.

Frank Johnson, President of the Modesto chapter of the NAACP, suggested nurse practitioners be allowed to practice medicine without a physician’s oversight – a practice already adopted by 18 other states. That would allow the NAACP to more effectively operate its volunteer-driven stop gap health program, which saw 20,000 Stanislaus County residents last year, reducing dependence on physicians.

Many good ideas came from Friday’s meeting, Olsen said, which she will take back to the legislature.

“Let's consider this the beginning of the dialogue back and forth, and not the end,” Olsen said.

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