By Katherine Jane Hall,
On June 29, National Rural Health Association members Tim Putnam and Nikki King spoke to the Democratic Steering Committee’s Rural Summit on the opioid crisis and other pressing concerns in rural health.
NRHA staff and interns also attended the summit in D.C., which focused on improving the quality of life for rural Americans.
During opening remarks, committee members were adamant about ensuring fellow legislators understand the epidemic of opioid abuse is no longer just an “inner city” problem, as described by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Durbin went on to emphasize that no family is safe from being touched by this crisis.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) spoke on maintaining and strengthening the rural way of life. She said we must provide a pathway for comprehensive mental and physical health care for rural America.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) discussed expanding rural broadband access through a program similar to the New Deal from the FDR administration to ensure access for telehealth and schools.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack gave the keynote about the importance of rural populations to the economy, and how without them, we could not enjoy the same quality of life we are accustomed to as a nation. He also highlighted a wealth of improvements to the programs for rural areas as well as a decrease in poverty and unemployment in rural areas under the current administration.
The panel discussion opened with Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) discussing the HIV outbreak in Austin, Ind., and the strain that 197 new cases of HIV has put on the already struggling local health care system.
Donnelly then asked Putman to explain how health care is different in rural areas. Putnam said access is the main issue and in many cases the reason people die of opioid overdose.
As an EMT, Putnam sees overdoses frequently and explained that when you overdose on opioids, you stop breathing and long transport times due to rural hospital closures make it more difficult to save lives once the patient has stopped breathing.
Also a rural hospital CEO, Putnam added that when a hospital is forced to close, there is no transition program (to a 24-hour emergency room, for instance), so communities are left without access health care.
Putnam also discussed the importance of rural training tracks and that we must “…grow and train our own” to ensure workforce security.
Another NRHA member, and panel participant, Nikki King gave a heartfelt testimony about her experiences growing up in rural Kentucky.
“When I left my rural community, my goal was to make rural communities more sustainable,” she told senators.
She said while growing up in Appalachia, she witnessed people in her hometown dying of black lung and overdosing on opioids that were prescribed to them. She spoke of more and more children being raised by people other than their parents due to drug abuse and the rising death toll of the current drug crisis.
King said people from Appalachia are hardworking, ready to fight for our country, and occasionally do the jobs that no one else wants to do.
She ended her testimony saying, “We’re worth fighting for in Appalachia. We need our hospitals, and we need help to stand.”
Donnelly concluded the panel discussion by adding, “When rural America works, everything works.”