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Addressing Nebraska's rural health care challenges

Addressing Nebraska's rural health care challenges

We can develop innovative public-private partnerships, programs and policy solutions to recruit and retain the needed health care workforce in rural communities.

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Rural communities that are vibrant, growing and healthy enjoy a handful of similar resources. One is access to education, and another is access to health care. Ask yourself this question: "Would I move my family to a community that does not meet my needs and expectations as they relate to education and health care?" The answer is no!

Access to health care services is vital to recruit and retain businesses and the jobs they bring. After a great deal of hard work, Gothenburg was able to create the right environment to attract Fortune 500 companies. Access to quality health care services was critical to this process. To many seeking the good life in rural Nebraska, driving 20 miles, instead of 100 for a checkup or procedure, is a deal maker. It means employers seeking to fill jobs can ensure future employees that health care for their families is readily available.

Further, a health care clinic and/ or hospital complement both urban and rural communities with good-paying, stable jobs. In rural areas, they provide an added incentive for local youth to return to the communities where they grew up: to raise their families and become future health care providers and community leaders.

A recent University of Nebraska Medical Center report, entitled "The Status of the Nebraska Health Care Workforce," tells us there is some good news. Our state's number of physicians and nurse practitioners has grown slightly, and there are existing programs that help rural communities "grow their own" future health care professionals. However, there are some very disconcerting findings in the report. It says too many of our rural Nebraska communities face challenges accessing medical, dental, pharmacy, physical therapy and mental health care. And many of our rural health practitioners are nearing retirement age and will be leaving the field faster than they are being replaced.

It does not take long in thumbing through the report for things to jump out. For example, all counties except Douglas and Lancaster are short of at least one type of primary care specialty. Another example is that access to care for rural Nebraskans from OB/ GYN physicians and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) has dropped sharply in just the last two years.

These issues are serious red flags! The UNMC report offers recommendations that include enhancing existing programs for students such as scholarships and student loan repayment programs for those who want to practice in rural areas; providing more medical residency training programs in Nebraska, especially in rural areas; and expanding telecommunications infrastructure, including telehealth.

Taking into account the recommendations put forward in the report, I believe we can develop innovative public-private partnerships, programs and policy solutions to recruit and retain the needed health care workforce in rural communities across Nebraska. Working together, we can ensure rural Nebraska remains a vibrant economic driver for our state, while offering the highest quality of life.

The University of Nebraska is another critical resource for Nebraska. I urge my fellow state senators, together with our health care systems and communities, to work with UNMC to keep health care services alive in our rural hometowns. For Nebraska, "The Good Life" isn't a slogan. It's a promise. Ensuring that our health care systems remain healthy is the first step!

Matt Williams, from Gothenburg, represents Legislative District 36 in the Nebraska Legislature and is a member of the Health and Human Services Committee. He is chairman of the board of Flatwater Bank.

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