Rural health panel links disparities to poverty, wants to work another year

Task force will recommend renewal of study resolution

By: - January 27, 2023 10:57 am
A medical professional holds a stethoscope to the chest of a woman

Louisiana’s six governo candidates weigh in on what their health care priorities would be. (Canva image)

A state panel that has been studying health disparities in rural Louisiana for the past six months has developed a number of legislative recommendations ahead of its March 1 deadline and will ask lawmakers to let it continue its work for an additional year.

The Health Disparities in Rural Areas Task Force, created last year by state Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, convened Thursday to share some of its findings and recommendations regarding the state’s dismal health rankings and poor access to medicine in rural areas.

Miller’s study resolution formed a task force of medical experts charged with finding solutions to close the healthcare gap between rural and urban areas. According to the resolution, approximately 98% of the state’s population lives in a federally designated health professional shortage area.

The panel has held regular meetings since August and must submit a draft of its recommendations to the Louisiana Legislature no later than March 1 before officially disbanding July 1.

However, Ochsner Lafayette General executive Karen Wyble, who chairs the task force, said the first recommendation will reflect the severity of the state’s healthcare problem. The panel, composed of all volunteers, will recommend that lawmakers renew the resolution and allow them to continue collecting data and adapting new solutions.

Louisiana’s rural healthcare anemic for minorities, poor, elderly

“We all agreed that we’re not going to solve this in six months, [and] we’re not going to solve this in a year,” Wyble said.

Wyble pointed out that Louisiana continues to rank as the unhealthiest state in the nation every year and actually got worse from 2021 to 2022. One of the key drivers, she said, is poverty.

While the rest of the country saw a decrease in the number of families that can’t afford necessities, Louisiana has not, Wyble said, citing data from the Louisiana Budget Project. The share of Black families in poverty is 1.8 times greater than the share among the general population, and 15.5% of Black people in the state live in deep poverty, meaning their household income was below 50% of the federal poverty line, which is $27,750 for a family of four in Louisiana.

Wyble said the poverty issue requires more attention from other experts. The task force will recommend lawmakers create an advisory commission to focus on reducing poverty levels for Black families. The commission would identify key drivers causing poverty and work with state workforce officials to assess opportunities for training and employment in rural communities, she said.

“Our poverty levels are not getting any better,” Wyble said. “In fact, we’re the only state in the country that did not make any incremental improvements in its poverty levels.”

Other key findings involve cigarette and tobacco use. Louisiana takes in roughly $415 million per year in tobacco revenues and spends less than 3% of it on anti-smoking programs, compared with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation of 12%.

More than 23% of adults in Louisiana smoke, compared with 13.7% elsewhere in the country, and Louisiana high school students smoke at a rate 50% higher than the national average. The state also has one of the highest rates of smoking-related deaths at about 7,200 per year, according to the CDC.

Smoking is directly responsible for more than $2 billion in annual healthcare costs in Louisiana and is costing the state’s Medicaid program more than $800 million annually, Wyble said.

The task force will ask the legislature to look at ways to meet the CDC’s recommendation on earmarking $60 million in annual tobacco revenues for smoking-cessation programs. The state currently spends $13 million.

“It is important that the legislators understand these statistics,” Wyble said.

The task force has a number of other recommendations and will meet next on Feb. 23 to review and vote on their entire report. 


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots to 1997 when, at age 13, he built a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. Since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune and worked on staff at WAFB/CBS, the Sun Herald and the Enterprise-Journal, winning awards from the SPJ, Associated Press, Mississippi Press Association and McClatchy. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Muller is a New Orleans native, Jesuit High School alumnus, University of New Orleans alumnus and a U.S. Army veteran and former paratrooper. He lives in Southeast Louisiana with his two sons and wife.