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Rural areas need access to emergency health care

I recently read about how Western New York’s rural hospitals are struggling, but what of the people in rural communities whose access to emergency health care is being destroyed by their business decisions? Former Dunkirk hospital CEO Richard Ketcham said in 2009 about the then plight of Westfield’s emergency room: “A minimum of 17 miles is too long to travel for emergency care.”

For more than four years, 20,000 people from Cattaraugus to North Collins have been without nearby emergency care after a 2009 flood destroyed Gowanda’s Tri-County Hospital. Another 20,000-plus from Silver Creek to Angola will lose their emergency care if Irving’s bankrupt Lake Shore Health Care Center closes.

Gowanda’s 24-hour ambulance service is good, but overtaxed and not always available. Gowanda’s newly opened day-to-evening “urgent care” facility is not staffed to handle life-threatening emergencies. Desperate families have been forced to rush their stricken loved ones, being chased by the police for speeding into the Lake Shore parking lot, where the highest legal speed along the entire route from Gowanda is 45 mph.

Hospital finances are dominated by Medicare and Medicaid, and thus our state and federal elected officials bear a major responsibility to see that our rural hospitals are not set up to fail due to inadequate reimbursement. There are concepts and programs designed for rural emergency health care delivery already working in Western New York hospitals that could be used to restore Gowanda’s access to emergency health care. We need to hear about cooperative efforts from all of our elected officials to fix this. What higher priority do they have than the lives of their constituents?

William Cain

Gowanda