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Office of Rural Prosperity releases annual report

Jonathan Riley

PITTSBURG, Kan. — With his appointment as lieutenant governor, alongside his continuing role as commerce secretary, David Toland is also now in charge of running one of the few divisions of the Kansas Department of Commerce that he didn’t previously directly oversee: the Office of Rural Prosperity (ORP).

“I’ve been a rural Kansan my whole life,” Toland said in a press release this week. “I understand that the needs are great, but I also know that the grit and determination of rural Kansans is unmatched. I look forward to continuing and accelerating the important work of the ORP.”

The ORP was created by Gov. Laura Kelly in 2019 and previously headed by Lynn Rogers, the former lieutenant governor who was recently appointed Kansas state treasurer after that position was vacated by Jake LaTurner following his election to Congress in November. This week, the ORP released its annual report for 2020.

In public meetings with residents of various regions of the state as part of the ORP’s 2020 “Virtual Tour,” participants identified key issues for their areas. In Southeast Kansas, according to the report, these included challenges with K-12 education, retaining recent college graduates and young professionals, healthcare, affordable housing, and reliable internet access.

“Different parts of the state face various challenges,” the report notes. “For example, Southeast Kansas counties rank lowest in many health outcomes while children in Western Kansas are more likely to be uninsured.”

The report also identifies Southeast Kansas, along with South Central Kansas, as two regions of the state “that are struggling with hospital shutdowns and loss of revenue.”

In late 2018, the Mercy Hospital Fort Scott shut its doors, before partially reopening to provide a more limited range of services under an agreement between Ascension Via Christi and Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas (CHCSEK).

Shortly after the Fort Scott hospital closed, Oswego Community Hospital in Labette County — which was operated by a company that was allegedly part of a complex scheme that used rural hospitals in multiple states as hubs for fraudulently billing insurers, for which several people involved now face federal criminal charges — also shut down.

Despite the hospital closures in recent years, however, Pittsburg, in particular, remains “the regional hub for the medical industry here in southeast Kansas,” as Quentin Holmes, the city’s director of community development and housing, recently told Business View Magazine.

Although there have been some setbacks for healthcare in the region, there have also been promising developments, such as CHCSEK’s progress — with help from the federal government and other healthcare industry stakeholders such as the University of Kansas School of Medicine and Freeman Health System — towards launching a new rural medicine residency program in Pittsburg.

The ORP report makes the argument that Kansas needs to expand its Medicaid program, known as KanCare, saying that amid the COVID-19 pandemic “with community advocates reporting repeat unemployment claims, increased demand for food assistance, and unmet transportation needs, Southeast Kansas has felt the pinch of not having expanded healthcare access potentially more than any region of the state.”

Medicaid expansion has been a priority for Kelly since before she came into office. Last year she had worked out a tentative agreement with then-Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning (R-Overland Park) to expand the healthcare program for low-income people, but the deal fell apart amid debate over issues such as whether KanCare funding would pay for abortions and the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which cut the legislative session short.

The ORP report also addresses issues such as childcare and early education.

While leading the ORP, Rogers made it a priority to address challenges faced by parents, childcare centers, and in-home providers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ORP worked with former state Rep. Monica Murnan (D-Pittsburg) “to bring together childcare professionals, parents, and educators from Southeast and South Central Kansas to hear their success stories and ongoing challenges,” according to the report. “Despite childcare providers working to support so many other essential workers and industries during the pandemic, many faced significant economic fallout.”

As might be expected, much of the 2020 ORP report deals with how rural communities across the state have responded and adjusted to life amid the coronavirus pandemic. Despite this shift in focus last year that could not have been anticipated when the ORP launched in 2019, Gov. Kelly continues to view the ORP’s work as an important priority.

“The Office of Rural Prosperity has been an important tool to address economic issues facing rural communities, businesses, and Kansans,” Kelly said in the release announcing the ORP report. “We know that more work must be done to encourage community and economic development across our state, and this report provides a roadmap to continue investing in and supporting rural Kansans.”