By Herb Kuhn, President and CEO, Missouri Hospital Association

The Missouri Farm Bureau’s mission statement is, “Advocating for farmers, the rural way of life and all Missourians.” I was recently invited to make a presentation to the Missouri Farm Bureau’s State Resolutions Committee at the invitation of Farm Bureau President Blake Hurst. As I prepared, I found myself reflecting on the similar challenges faced by our state’s farmers and rural health care providers.

It occurred to me that I should offer a “mission moment” to explain why hospitals and rural health are an important component of Missouri’s rural agenda. Mine started with bees.

A man walked into one of Missouri’s rural health clinics, said “bees,” and collapsed on the floor. Although it sounds like the opening of a mystery, it’s actually a true story of an individual who arrived at a hospital’s rural health clinic after being swarmed and stung repeatedly. Were it not for the clinic, he might not have survived the attack.

Access to health services is important for all Missourians. When a condition is life threatening — when minutes matter — the stakes are higher.

Whether a Missourian lives in suburban St. Louis County or rural Scotland County shouldn’t determine the quality of care or access to health services. That is why rural Missourians need to make their voices heard on health care issues.

That’s also why, in January, the Missouri Hospital Association launched the Reimagine Rural Health initiative. Influenced by Gov. Mike Parson’s Rural Health Summit, held last December in Bolivar, the “reimagine” program emphasizes the need for investments in rural health. Although a number of important policy initiatives were adopted to strengthen the state’s rural health system during this year’s legislative session, long-term change requires ongoing monitoring and fine-tuning.

For example, another rural Missouri hospital closed this spring. In total, seven rural hospitals have been shuttered in the state over the past 5 years. When a rural hospital closes, it leads to a daisy chain of events — including the loss of access to hospital and other health services that result in medical deserts. That’s unacceptable.

The Farm Bureau derives its strength from the local level. The same is true for hospitals. Many of the social, geographic and demographic challenges that today’s farmers face also are faced by rural hospitals. These include policy and financial headwinds, and the decline of community institutions that historically have supported economic and social vitality. There are shared challenges, like the need for better behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, and shared opportunity through expanded broadband, telemedicine and better access to primary care services.

Just as farmers and rural communities continue to reinvent themselves, rural hospitals must reimagine rural health. That means helping communities recognize the economic value of rural products — including rural health care — and keeping much of that value local.

While the Farm Bureau’s primary focus is agriculture, it recognizes the need for a strong health system in rural Missouri. Working together, we can safeguard rural care.