Legislature keeps health care strong

Spring has been a busy time at the Arizona State Capitol, as the Legislature completed its work and Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law the fiscal 2018 state budget.

While much of the spotlight was on hot-button issues like K-12 spending, it’s also worth noting those “under the radar” accomplishments that will have a big impact in southern Arizona and rural communities.

For example, the budget includes a $3 million allocation from the state to expand high-speed broadband Internet access in rural Arizona. While the expansion of broadband is primarily touted for its benefits to rural K-12 schools, this new infrastructure has the potential to improve health care delivery in hospitals like we have here in Cochise County.

In rural communities, the appeal of telemedicine is obvious as it reduces potentially unnecessary in-person patient visits and travel, saving time and reducing health care costs.

With this new investment in broadband — coupled with legislation passed this session that expands coverage opportunities for telemedicine services statewide — we will continue to expand access to quality, affordable health care for rural Arizonans.

We also were encouraged to see lawmakers approve the allocation of more than $220,000 to combat opioid addiction, plus over $500,000 for substance abuse programs, counselors and additional rehabilitation efforts to lower recidivism and reduce Arizona’s prison population.

Addressing the opioid epidemic is more urgent than ever. According to a new report from the Arizona Department of Health Services, opioid deaths in Arizona are the highest they’ve been in 10 years and they’ve increased an astonishing 74 percent in the last four years alone. This is having a significant impact on the health care system, with hospital visits related to opioid overdoses increasing by 300 percent in the last decade.

And while the majority of deaths occur in urban areas, rural areas often have the greatest challenge in responding to opioid overdoses.

Healthy communities are the foundation for a healthy economy and state. At the Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation (AREDF), we will continue to support investing in programs that combat opioid abuse and expand health care and drug treatment options in every corner of our state.

While these achievements represent a positive step forward for rural health care, challenges and uncertainty remain.

Our continued progress in this area largely hinges on the impending reforms being considered at the federal level. For example, we have been vocal about our concerns with the American Health Care Act in its current form – particularly the devastating cuts it proposes to Medicaid and similar programs.

This presents a real threat to our area hospitals, families and the local economy.

As our elected leaders in Washington consider their own solutions to America’s health care challenges, we will continue to work with small and rural hospitals right here in Arizona to identify and support policies that keep our communities healthy, our health care industry growing and our Southern Arizona economy strong.