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State healthcare leaders discuss need for more providers, lack of healthcare access, and abortion ban legislation during WVPA Legislative Lookahead

By Autumn Shelton, West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Healthcare industry leaders joined together on Friday for the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead, where they discussed healthcare priorities that should be considered during the upcoming legislative session. 

James W. Nemitz, Ph.D., president of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM); Elizabeth Pellegrin, vice-president and chief marketing officer for Vandalia Health; and Stephen Pachuta, dean of the WVU School of Dentistry, answered questions from moderator Derek Redd, managing editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register, along with other members of the media, about some of the most pressing issues in healthcare today.

Nemitz began discussions by stating that there should be incentives to get physicians–especially new physicians–to stay in West Virginia.

“There are disincentives to practicing medicine in the state,” Nemitz said. “I had a recent grad of mine say, ‘You know. I could go down to Florida and I could get paid a lot more money, not have to pay any state income tax and benefit my family more.’” 

Nemitz said legislators should look at innovative ways to keep medical professionals in the state as well as supporting higher education. 

“We want to be able to continue to grow our programs, and in order to grow, state support is important,” Nemitz stated. 

Pellegrin added that supporting healthcare professionals is critical, as is ensuring the financial stability of hospitals. 

West Virginia is a poor state, Pellegrin explained, where many rely on government funded programs such as Medicaid and Medicare. 

“It’s critically important that we maximize those dollars that are coming down, that could come down, from the feds . . . particularly the Medicaid match,” Pellegrin said. 

She then discussed how healthcare employees need support. 

“It is a very challenging environment. I will speak on the CAMC (Charleston Area Medical Center) part of Vandalia. We have General Hospital, which is, of course, a very significant tertiary care center/trauma center. We had to institute, a few years ago, an emergency badge that’s worn with your regular badge. […] Through GPS we know where all of our employees are because we had so many attacks on our employees by both patients and family members largely due to the drug situation.” 

Pellegrin said anti-doxxing legislation, to prevent personal information from being shared on social media, would help to protect healthcare workers. 

Pachuta added that, as the only dental school in the state, it’s important for WVU to have a vision. In July, they will be starting a pediatric dental residency program, and they are looking at meeting ever-increasing technological demands. 

“The profession of dentistry is going digital, moving toward digital technology very fast,” Pachuta said. “The way that we practiced five years ago, in some cases three years ago, is not the way we are practicing today, and it’s not the way we will practice in the future.” 

In order to stay competitive with other dental schools for student enrollment, Pachuta said that modernizing curriculum and renovating facilities is important. 

He also noted that many West Virginia families do not have access to dental healthcare. This is largely due to where they live. 

“The adult Medicaid benefit – $1,000 for restorative care – was a gamechanger for access to care in our state,” Pachuta stated. 

In response to a question about infrastructure needs, Pellegrin said that a greater investment in telemedicine should be considered, especially for smaller hospitals. 

“There’s somewhat minimal infrastructure investments that could really gain a lot of access in these rural communities and, also, there are some small hospitals, some critical access hospitals, that really need some infrastructure funding.” 

Nemitz noted that the need for increased technological infrastructure funding is always an issue, but that increasing tuition rates is not the answer. 

“One of the things that we have gotten into is simulation,” Nemitz explained. “You can create any type of medical scenario you can think of, create a program that students can use, virtually, anywhere, and then be able to use that to train people to go over scenarios that they are going to face in real life. It’s a very powerful technology. It costs a lot of money. That is the challenge – finding dollars . . . to be able to provide our students with the best technology, the best education that they can have.” 

He also said that to increase the number of physicians in the state, legislators should consider investing in residency programs. 

“A lot of our med students leave the state because either they don’t have the residency that they are looking for or there aren’t enough physicians,” Nemitz said, adding, “This is an important piece that I don’t think a lot of people understand.” 

To fortify rural healthcare, Nemitz said that WVSOM has implemented a statewide approach. 

“We’re everywhere,” Nemitz noted.

“The more you work together, the better it is for the state,” he continued, stating that the main goal is to get all West Virginians to live healthier lifestyles.

“We so desperately need that, and it’s related to access,” Nemitz said. “It’s important to have those major hospital systems throughout the state, but one of the big problems West Virginians have is transportation issues.” 

He said that in order to improve healthcare outcomes for West Virginians, rural facilities need support. 

Pellegrin added that the Vandalia Health Network considers transportation vouchers to help patients get to their appointments as well as identifying food deserts and working with local stores, such as Dollar General, to offer fresh foods. 

“We struggle with that in the dental profession as well,” Pachuta noted. “We have counties in this state that don’t have dentists.” 

He said that preventive care and dental care education is needed and thought should be placed on attracting dentists to rural locations, which may mean student loan forgiveness for dentists who choose to practice in underserved areas. 

“We have unhealthy communities,” Nemitz added. “If we want to grow and prosper we need to be healthy. We all have a responsibility for that – certainly the schools do.” 

Placing an extra tax on certain items and working on nutrition may help improve healthcare outcomes, Nemitz continued. “If we did something about tobacco and sugary drinks in this state we could start making a change.” 

In response to a question regarding women’s healthcare and the state’s abortion ban legislation, Nemitz said that while the impact hasn’t yet been seen, there has “been a chill” among healthcare professionals. 

“There’s concern within the medical community,” Nemitz said, noting that a person’s medical license is “one of the most valuable things they have.” 

“That’s part of the challenge we have in our society right now is we have different views on the issue of abortion, but it’s now affecting the care given to women and unborn babies that is concerning.” 

Pellegrin said those who wish to enter into ob-gyn healthcare may start seeking educational opportunities out-of-state in order to gain all necessary training. 

“I don’t know that we’ve seen that yet, but it is a concern for folks who are medical educators,” she stated. 

The same concerns are had for gender-affirming care bans, Nemitz said. 

“That’s what this type of legislation will do,” Nemitz said, noting that, in his opinion, this type of legislation will push people away. 

Lastly, Pellegrin said that continued Medicare cuts would be “devastating” for West Virginia and that increased communication with all stakeholders is important.