Officials: In Northwest CT, ‘There aren’t a lot of resources’ to address rural health care needs

Photo of Emily M. Olson

TORRINGTON — The state must do a better job in providing health care services, according to state Attorney General William Tong.

Tong spoke as part of a discussion on the challenges facing rural health care, which was led by Community Health & Wellness Center CEO Joanne Borduas and included other state leaders and health care providers.

Also joining Tong were state Reps. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, and Maria Horn, D-Salisbury; Sharon Hospital President Dr. Mark Hirko; Andrea Rhynn of Nuvance Health; Michelle Brady, the center’s director of nursing; CFO Beth Chague; Jason Kersten, the center’s Behavioral Health Program Director; Dr. Rocco Russo, the center’s Medical Director; COO Gina Burrows and other health care providers.

In addressing the issue of rural health care, Borduas said towns like Canaan, Salisbury and Sharon are sometimes regarded as affluent, but in fact have citizens who lack insurance and are living on the poverty level.

“In Canaan, North Canaan, Sharon and Salisbury, the need is very great,” she said.

Tong agreed that the overall need for health care services is great.

“It’s expanding exponentially across the state,” he said. “The state has to do a better job, providing that care.”

The attorney general reminded the group that he recently brokered a $26 billion settlement with drug companies, a result of the opioid crisis, and that Connecticut was expected to receive $300 million from that settlement, over the next five years.

“I want to make sure some of that money comes to the Northwest Corner,” he said.

The funding will come in handy, Borduas said, since the opioid crisis has taken a toll on families and individuals around the state.

There’s also a lack of primary care practices in the area, the director said. As doctors from traditional primary medical practices retire, their roles are not being filled by new doctors, leaving patients in rural communities searching for a new doctor and having to travel futher for primary care as well as specialists for treatment for cancer, for example.

“People are traveling for primary care, sometimes long distances,” Borduas said. “When you can’t provide that kind of care locally, it increases costs for everyone.”

Transportation to a doctor’s office in another town is also a problem, since there is no transportation, such as bus service, for towns in the Northwest Corner. “It’s something that needs to be addressed,” Borduas said.

She also pointed to the need for increased mental health services to communities across the region, and said the Community Health & Wellness Center was already working out a plan to provide what it can to better serve those towns.

“We bought a mobile unit, and we’re getting it out into the community to areas that really need help,” Borduas said. “CHWC has also purchased a property in Canaan, and we’re working on a new facility and hope to get shovels in the ground by next year.”

The best approach to solving this ongoing problem, Borduas said, is recruitment, from area hospitals, finding graduates who have completed their residency and are ready to work in their first job, or practitioners looking for a change in their career.

A federal lending program would help health care providers, Borduas said, helping recent graduates pay off their student loans or borrow to open an office of their own. “A repayment plan is needed to help these doctors get on their feet,” she said.

Hirko said recruitment was a challenge, often because the young doctors wanted big salaries.

“Because of the shortage of doctors, graduates are asking for a lot of money,” he said.

Sharon Hospital, he said, is hoping to have more medical students do their residency there, and work in smaller towns.

“A lot of applications are coming in, as we add services,” Borduas said. “We try to sell them on why they should come here, it’s so beautiful, there’s access to sports, shopping, activities. If they’re young, they often want a more urban location.”

Dr. Rocco Russo, the health center’s medical director, went to school in Minnesota.

“About 50 percent of the medical school graduates went on to practice rural medicine,” he said. “I was doing house calls, working in my office and at hospitals, and provided emergency room coverage.

“There’s a myth that practicing medicine out in the sticks isn’t challenging, but that’s not true,” he said. “There’s a lot of benefits to practicing in rural areas, where there aren’t a lot of resources. It forces us to be more creative. Mentorships are also very important.”