Association Brings Rural Health Stories to Raleigh

NC Rural Health Association and North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative event centered policy action while celebrating rural champions and highlighting ongoing needs.

RALEIGH – Michelle Fortune, the CEO of St. Luke’s Hospital in Polk County, North Carolina, shared a personal rural health story with attendees of the North Carolina Rural Health Association’s (NCRHA) annual legislative breakfast.

When her father began experiencing chest pain and was taken to St. Luke’s, he was cleared and almost sent home before a doctor took time, paid attention, and discovered he was in fact having a heart attack.

St. Luke’s didn’t have a cardiologist at the time. The only solution to a condition that kills nearly 19,000 North Carolinians each year was to load Fortune’s father into a helicopter and fly him to a different hospital equipped to treat heart disease.

St. Luke’s does have a cardiologist now, thanks to a sustained increase in funding. Fortune and her father’s story is all too common for people across North Carolina, however, and too many rural hospitals struggle and are unable to provide vital life-saving services.

At NCRHA’s legislative breakfast, the organization unveiled its 2023 North Carolina Rural Health Snapshot, a sprawling analysis of rural health, access gaps, and inequities across the state. Beyond the 11 hospital closures in North Carolina since 2005, NCRHA’s Snapshot dives deep into the social factors that impact health, trends in behavioral health, oral health access, and workforce trends.

The organization and its co-host, the North Carolina Oral Health Collaborative (NCOHC), two programs of the Foundation for Health Leadership & Innovation (FHLI), presented awards to five rural health champions at the breakfast. NCRHA co-chairs Patrick Woody of the NC Rural Center and Emily Roland of the North Carolina Healthcare Association recognized Senator Jim Burgin and Representative Donna McDowell White for their work to improve rural health in the North Carolina General Assembly.

Among the topics of discussion at the breakfast was the recent passage of Medicaid Expansion in North Carolina, a policy that advocates have worked toward since the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010. Burgin and White both were instrumental in cultivating the bipartisan support necessary to pass the legislation.

The pair also presented Fortune and Dr. Amanda Stroud with community champion and equity awards, respectively. During the event, Stroud also spoke to attendees about her motivation to work as a public health dentist in rural North Carolina.

Stroud grew up on food stamps, with parents who worked long hours in grueling jobs to make ends meet. She didn’t see her first dentist until a school-based program came to her school. Today, she provides that same school-based care to children in Ashe, Alleghany, and Watauga Counties.

Stroud choked up as she talked about the safety net, how it saved her life, and how hard it can be to continue her life-saving work faced with limited funding and staffing shortages.

“Where I’m from, dentures are the norm,” said Stroud. “We need to make dentists the norm.”