Recently, I visited Washington County Memorial Hospital (WCMH) to meet with hospital leaders and community members who rely on the day-to-day services of the hospital to discuss how to improve access to care and how best to keep costs down for working families. WCMH does an outstanding job providing quality care to their community, but they face many challenges in doing so. They aren’t alone. Many other hospitals and healthcare facilities around southern Missouri face the same challenges, and patients often struggle to get to facilities which can be an hour’s drive away, or more.
This week, I joined a roundtable at Southeast Missouri State University with Governor Parson and President Trump’s head of drug policy Jim Carroll to talk about these challenges as well as the ongoing opioid crisis impacting many small, rural towns. Since 2010, over 100 rural hospitals have closed in the United States, some of them in our area. Rural hospital closures are often associated with an increase in an area’s mortality rate – in short: people die when hospitals close. This is simply unacceptable. The roundtable focused on three key ways for us to continue attacking these issues: workforce development, increasing the number of healthcare professionals that can serve patients in rural areas, and forming partnerships between law enforcement, medical providers, and community organizations to mitigate the impact of opioids in our towns.
The scourge of opioid addiction and abuse is especially acute in rural areas. A 2017 study found that nearly 50 percent of rural adults have been directly impacted by opioid misuse, and while drug overdose deaths finally declined nationwide in 2018, they continue to increase in Missouri. Unfortunately, these problems are harder to fight in rural areas because care is often scarce or under-supported. For instance, many rural counties lack access to mental health professionals – especially dangerous when the parasite of opioid addiction feeds on negative thinking and mental health disorders. We must continue to press to reverse the trajectory of drug overdoses in Missouri and restore the health of our communities.
Our efforts to treat opioid addiction must be complemented by a vigorous plan to restrict the flow of drugs into our communities in the first place. Earlier this month, I invited Poplar Bluff Chief of Police Danny Whiteley to attend the State of the Union as my guest because of his decades of experience fighting the movement of drugs in our towns and because of the clear correlation he sees between securing our border and reducing the number of drugs in our communities. At a town hall I hosted in Poplar Bluff last winter, Chief Whiteley spoke about how he sees drugs that cross the US-Mexico border end up in the pockets of criminals he encounters in Butler County.
This year, I was glad to share with him the progress the President has made to restrict drugs from entering our communities, including by building a border wall. During the State of the Union earlier this year, President Trump let the American people know that “as the wall rapidly goes up, drug seizures rise.” Thanks to the President’s leadership, over 100 miles have been built, at least 450 additional miles are under construction or in planning, and our communities are being fortified against the stream of illegal drugs that existed prior to the wall. While Chief Whiteley was in DC, he was able to discuss this issue and others with the head Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the special agent in charge of DEA’s St. Louis division. Additionally, just a few days after Chief Whiteley’s visit, the President signed legislation that I voted for that allowed law enforcement to more aggressively target fentanyl distribution in our community.
There is still much work to be done to expand rural healthcare access and fight opioid abuse in southern Missouri, but I am optimistic that we are on the right track to achieving our goals. Tackling these two issues is easier when government officials and community leaders work together to pursue the same objectives. Thankfully, my roundtable this week made clear that local nonprofits, law enforcement, and government officials ranging from our local communities to the White House care deeply about the same issues and are willing to go the extra mile to protect America’s rural communities.