Public-private initiatives are helping to tackle health care disparities across Kansas

By JR Claeys
Special to Gannett Kansas
JR Claeys

While new technological innovations have helped to raise the quality of health care, many people still find it hard to access the care that they need.

This is a problem that’s especially prominent in states like Kansas, where a large portion of the population lives in rural areas without ready access to the kinds of doctors and treatments they require.

More recent advances like telemedicine are helping to address these issues, but many disparities still pose some worrisome challenges for rural states like ours.

The past year has helped to elevate these issues publicly. According to a study in the Kansas Journal of Medicine, urban Kansas counties have roughly twice as many doctors per 1,000 people as their rural counterparts. The frontier counties had notably scarce access to ICU services, which the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed in some parts of the country.

This was despite having a larger percentage of their population age 65 or older, who are at an elevated risk of serious problems if they catch the virus.

Thankfully, the state and federal government are working to help bridge these gaps. For example, the Sunflower State recently announced that Kansans can begin applying for grants aimed at boosting telehealth capacities in rural areas. However, in order to work toward building a more equitable healthcare system, we will need government leaders to help bolster private industry initiatives targeted at minimizing disparities.

One rapidly growing program, for example, is called the Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations program that was launched jointly by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Philips North America.

By providing telehealth services at local American Legion posts and VFW locations, the program is helping serve rural veterans struggling to get the care they need. With the program rapidly expanding, it has the potential to provide care to those who have served living in rural parts of the country.

Disparities affecting rural Kansans also play into another critical issue affecting health care in our state: inequitable health outcomes in Native American communities. Native American communities experience higher rates of a number of health conditions than the national average, including conditions known to put patients in more danger of having severe complications from COVID-19 such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease.

Luckily, this is another issue that private industry efforts are working to both bring attention to and alleviate. The Health Equity, Action, & Leadership Initiative recently partnered with Philips to help commit fellows to Native American communities for two years, where they work in local care centers and learn more about the communities’ unique needs. Programs like this can help to bridge the gaps that exist in health care right now and allow us to finally tackle pressing problems in a more equitable way.

The only way these efforts will succeed in helping more communities across the U.S., however, is with the backing of lawmakers and public officials. Thankfully, Kansas has two U.S. senators that recognize the needs of rural and Native American communities across the state in Jerry Moran and Roger Marshall. With their support, these kinds of partnerships can thrive and address the most urgent disparities afflicting vulnerable communities.

The disparities we’ve seen over the past year will not go away when the pandemic subsides. It will take an immense effort to begin making health care more accessible and equitable. Thankfully, though, private industry is showing it is ready and willing to help. Now, we just need lawmakers to assist in making sure their efforts are successful.

State Sen. JR Claeys lives in Salina and represents the 24th District.