Grassroots group’s goal to support rural hospitals

BUCKHANNON — St. Joseph’s Hospital is exploring the formation of a grassroots advocacy team of local citizens that can push for issues to help rural hospitals.

Skip Gjolberg, administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital, saw the grassroots advocacy work in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.

“It was pretty successful,” he said.

Grassroots advocacy is political activity with the goal of creating change and can be successful at federal, state and local level, according to Gjolberg.

“We think we can’t have an impact on Washington, but that isn’t quite the case,” he said.

Gjolberg shared some general facts about rural hospitals before diving into specifics about St. Joseph’s Hospital and the local community.

On average, 14 percent of total employment in rural communities is attributed to the health sector.

Rural hospitals are typically one of the top two largest employers in rural areas.

The average critical access hospital creates 107 jobs and generates $4.8 million in payroll annually.

Rural populations have different health care needs because they often have dangerous occupations like farming and mining. Rural populations are also often older, sicker and uninsured or under insured.

West Virginia and Upshur County are no different, according to Gjolberg.

However, Buckhannon is not a typical rural town because it has both a hospital and a college, he said.

St. Joseph’s Hospital has 349 total full-time employees with about 421 total employees and an annual payroll of $25 million.

It is currently the second largest employer in Upshur County behind Upshur County Schools.

Having local health care is important from an economic development standpoint.

“When someone is looking to bring a business or looking to move here, quality health care, good schools and an attractive labor market are critical
omponents to attract business, industry and people,” he said. “If you can’t get past these three, then they are not going to look any further.”

When hospitals close in rural communities, it has a big economic impact as well as a spiral effect on the community with decreased access, increased drive time and added risk for emergency situations.

“It’s harder to attract new businesses and families to an area that doesn’t have a local emergency room,” Gjolberg said. 

Grassroots teams can advocate for a variety of issues, but Gjolberg focused on one in particular for his presentation Thursday.

“Medicaid expansion was a boon for rural hospitals as millions more Americans gained coverage and were able to pay for care,” he said.

However, even if the Affordable Care Act remains intact, 683 rural hospitals across the country are at risk of shutting their doors.

“They are kind of on the edge of solvency,” he said. 

Some hospitals have already shuttered.

Eighty-one of more than 1,800 rural hospital in America have closed since 2010, according to research from the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program.

The goal of Thursday’s presentations, one in the morning and one held at 5:30 p.m., were to share a vision of what a grassroots advocacy team could do locally and gauge interest.

“What I’m trying to do is put together an advocacy program to help advocate on behalf of — specifically St. Joe’s — but rural hospitals,” Gjolberg said.

The West Virginia Hospital Association has created a legislative guide for grassroots advocacy and Gjolberg said some other hospitals have teams in place.

Gjolberg envisions periodic meetings and developing a list so he can share alerts about issues. Team members could then contact their legislators and share information with other contacts who may be interested on advocating for that issue.

The hospital association has a hospital day at the West Virginia Legislature planned for Feb. 1, 2018.

Gjoberg said typically three to four people go, but he would like to take a larger group, noting some hospitals even take a bus down.

“This event will provide an excellent opportunity for all West Virginia hospitals to be represented and connect with legislators,” he said.

A WVWC Master of Business Administration grad student, Tyler Broadwater, has been tasked with helping Gjolberg establish a grassroots advocacy team and has developed a legislative resource specific to Upshur County and West Virginia.

Contacting legislators at the local and national level are one aspect of the grassroots advocacy.

Legislators are accountable to the constituents who elect them and lawmakers need first-hand knowledge and expertise from those on the inside of an issue.

People interested in joining the advocacy team may pick up a brochure at the hospital and return the contact portion to the information desk. Or, e-mail [email protected] with your name, phone number and e-mail address.

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