Bridging the Great Health Divide: Incentivizing rural care

Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 11:37 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CHARLESTON, W.Va (WDTV) - Here in north central West Virginia, we are proud of our Mountaineers, and the dozens of medical students graduate from WVU Medical School every year.

However, just like every major stem field, there is a fear of brain drain in the state leading these young doctors out of the mountain state to higher paying and more populated areas in the nation, leaving rural communities without hope for specialized care.

“It is hard for us to recruit rural specialists here,” says President of St. Joseph’s Hospital Skip Gjolberg.

Gjolberg took the position at the Buckhannon hospital after serving as a doctor in rural Texas. He says that the lack of specialists is something that is not just isolated to West Virginia, yet during the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginians are in dire need of care.

Gjolberg says, “if you go further south like down to Rock Cave or something, and you think, somebody in Rock Cave needs to see a specialist, they are going to need to either drive to UHC which is an hour or they are going to drive all the way up to Ruby in Morgantown which is an hour-forty-five, two hours. That is a long drive to go especially if you are 75-80 years old and you have got a neurological problem going on.”

This problem has been eased by the rapid integration of telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic - a resource that Kevin Crockett of the Monongahela Valley Association of Health Centers says is now a staple of their care for rural patients.

“It became the number one type of visit we were doing there for a while,” says Crockett.

In a state still struggling to expand broadband access to rural communities, telehealth can only go so far. So, the only option is bringing specialists into these rural communities, and the best way to do that is by focusing on their debts.

“Especially when we do our own recruitment of physicians that is the number one question that they ask, do you have any loan repayment programs?” Crockett asked. “Trying to keep that population here. It is really, something that this type of community and these people need.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that a majority of students leave medical school with around $200,000 in debt. The MVA as a federally qualified health center has been able to draw in physicians through federal benefits alongside in-house debt repayment benefits.

This is a battle not just fought on the ground level.

{rep. David mckinley | (r) - west virginia}

“All states have this issue,” says Rep. David Mckinley (R) West Virginia. “For those of us in West Virginia, we want people to come to West Virginia and stay.”

For the past two years, Representative David Mckinley has been trying to pass a bill that would create a program through the U.S. Public Health Service, paying one-sixth of a physician’s loan debt for each year of service in a rural community up to $250,000.

“After six years, you are going to be part of the community. You are going to have relationships to your church, maybe you bought a home, you’re going to have a relationship,” continued Rep. Mckinley.

Both Gjolberg and Crockett say that this legislation would undoubtedly help them recruit specialists. However, Rep. Mckinley introduced the bill for a second time in February after it died due to inaction in committees in 2020. After being reintroduced in February of 2021, it has sat, unmoving, in a committees since.

Copyright 2021 WDTV. All rights reserved.