Closing the health care gap for Maine’s rural residents

BY James McCarthy

Photo / James McCarthy
Photo / James McCarthy
Barbara Leonard, who became president and CEO of Maine Health Access Foundation on Oct. 1, says her organization seeks to foster innovative approaches to improving health and health care systems in Maine.

Barbara Leonard began her new role as president and CEO of Maine Health Access Foundation on Oct. 1, replacing Dr. Wendy Wolf, the nonprofit's founder who announced her planned departure from those roles in the fall of 2015. MeHAF is Maine's largest, private, nonprofit health care foundation dedicated to promoting access to quality health care, especially for those who are uninsured and underserved.
Last month MeHAF hosted an all-day conference in Bangor featuring several panels describing how health providers are addressing challenges faced by Maine's rural residents. Mainebiz asked Leonard to recap some of the conference's discussion. The following is an edited transcript of her responses.

Mainebiz: What can you tell us about health care in rural Maine?

Barbara Leonard: MeHAF has released a series of reports this fall focusing on rural health developed by the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service, Rural Research Center. “Maine Rural Health Profiles” provides both state-level and county-specific information about how health status is generally poorer and health services are less available in the more rural parts of Maine. The reports also include some economic indicators, which highlight the importance of health care to the rural economy. We also released a set of “Maine Rural Health Innovation Briefs” that focus on promising strategies from Maine and other rural parts of the United States that are relevant to Maine.

The first step has been to identify the fact that these gaps exist, and the second step is to share some of the successful innovations already under way in Maine and across the country. We're also hoping to bring technical assistance providers who have experience working with rural areas in other parts of the country to Maine to help support our own creative approaches.

MB: What are Maine's biggest health care challenges, and why? 

BL: There are so many health care challenges, but I'll focus on two big challenges that cut across the state. One is the cost: Health care costs keep rising far faster than the rate of inflation, or the rate of increase in people's earnings. As noted by the town manager of China at the conference, health care costs are eating up bigger and bigger portions of municipal budgets. This means that individuals and families are less able to set aside funds for higher education and retirement. Cities and towns have to choose between health benefits for long-term employees and education, road repairs and waste management. As a country and state, we have to figure out how to curb the rising costs.

The good news is that many health care providers and health systems, as well as state government are identifying ways to control costs that are actually more patient-centered, which is a win-win.

The second challenge is the epidemic of opiate addiction that we're facing in Maine and across the country. On Nov. 17 the U.S. Surgeon General released a landmark report that highlights promising approaches to address addiction. One of his important messages is that substance use disorder is a chronic disease and that with appropriate prevention and treatment we can address it. Recovery is possible when the right services are provided in a timely way.

MB: What did you learn from your all-day conference in Bangor?

BL: Rural communities face challenges and opportunities when it comes to promoting health and ensuring access to health care. Rural communities often have strong networks of friends, families and local organizations that can help to prevent social isolation. But they also face challenges because of lack of resources or the inability of smaller organizations to do work at a scale that's needed in today's more complicated health care system.

MB: How might you help rural Maine?

BL: First of all, we're going to be making some grants to selected rural communities that have been able to develop innovative approaches to improving health and health care systems. These will be announced later in December.