Healthcare policy is a partisan lightning rod on the national stage.
But a new foundation-backed initiative hopes to show that isn’t the case in some rural states in the center of the country.
Heartland Forward, a self-described nonpartisan “think and do” tank which emphasizes practical policies for improving lives in core states and localities, launched the Heartland Health Caucus earlier this month to bring together policymakers from Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee to discuss solutions to the health care problems faced by rural areas.
The announcement was made during the annual Heartland Summit in Bentonville, Arkansas, on November 8. Bentonville is home to the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy of the heirs of the Walmart fortune, which provides some funding to Heartland Forward.
“What is specifically unique about the state-level Heartland Health Caucus, spanning six states, is that it is nonpartisan,” said Angie Cooper, executive vice president of Heartland Forward. “We don’t hear that very often in states across the country.”
While the six states are largely dominated by Republicans, Kentucky and Kansas have Democratic governors, and the caucus kickoff conference brought together 19 state lawmakers, policy makers and executive officials from both parties. (Two additional officials are participating in the caucus, but were unable to make it to the Heartland Summit in Bentonville.)
For example, Paula Nickelson, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services – an appointee of Missouri Governor Mike Parson (R) – participated along with Eric Friedlander, secretary of the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services – an appointee of the governor of Kentucky. Andy Beshear (D).
In consultation with Heartland Forward, participating states agreed in advance to focus their first meeting on three areas of common interest: healthcare workforce shortages, maternal health and mental health. At the same time, participants discussed the ways they are using telemedicine and telehealth to address all three challenges.
According to Cooper, the atmosphere during the meetings between the various officials from each state was optimistic and focused on sharing policy knowledge.
“I have already had many discussions with policymakers. Just the energy and the collaboration and the willingness to just roll up our sleeves and say, “I need help with the labor shortage,” or, “Oklahoma, you just passed a bill for community health workers. How did you do that?'”
Expanding Medicaid with federal funds made available under the Affordable Care Act is often seen as a win for states looking to support struggling hospitals. rural healthcare systems. Of the six states that are part of the Heartland Health Caucus, four are already extensive Medicaid: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. Kansas and Tennessee, on the other hand, are among the group of 10 states that have declined the expansion money.
Cooper nevertheless said that was not the focus of caucus conversations, which instead focused on lowering underlying health care costs.
“The real focus is on that affordability piece,” Cooper said.
Heartland Forward’s convening of the Heartland Health Caucus comes nearly a year after a far-reaching report the group published last December on the state of health care access in the six core states that now make up the Heartland Health Caucus.
The report, “Access to Healthcare in the Heartland,” found that there are wide disparities in access to physicians, pharmacists, and trauma center hospitals among urban, suburban, and rural counties in those six states. For example, 79.6% of residents in rural counties in those states live in what’s known as a “pharmacy desert” — meaning most residents live more than 15 minutes from the three nearest pharmacies — compared to 40.7% of the inhabitants of urban areas. counties and 42.2% of suburban counties.