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February 4, 2023

Guest Column: Access to Healthcare Services is Critical in Rural Communities

By Rena Salamacha, CEO, Mee Memorial Healthcare System

Nearly 1 in 5 Americans (an estimated 57 million people) live in rural communities throughout our vast country. And while access to healthcare services is critical to everyone, those living in rural areas face a variety of barriers that can adversely affect their overall physical, social and mental health status.

Much of the South Monterey County population falls into these rural margins. As the only comprehensive medical facility within 40 miles, Mee Memorial Healthcare System is vital to providing quality patient care to the often underserved — including immigrant farmworkers.

On Nov. 19, the many employees and volunteers within the Mee Memorial family were proud to honor and acknowledge National Rural Health Day. Founded by the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH), National Rural Health Day is a way to showcase rural America, increase awareness of rural health-related challenges, and promote the efforts of those who address the many challenges in delivering care.

A report from National Academies called “Access to Healthcare in America” defined “access” as the timely use of personal health services to achieve the best possible health outcomes. Ideally, residents should be able to conveniently and confidently access services, such as primary care, dental care, behavioral health, emergency care and public health services.

According to Healthy People 2020, access to healthcare is important for: overall physical, social and mental health; disease prevention; detection, diagnosis and treatment of illness; quality of life; preventable death; and life expectancy.

In advance of National Rural Health Day, Teryl Eisinger, CEO of NOSORH, spoke eloquently about the spirit of rural America, and the challenges faced by communities.

“These small towns, farming communities and frontier areas are wonderful places to live and work; they are places where neighbors know each other and work together,” he said. “The hospitals and providers serving these rural communities not only provide quality patient care, but they also help keep good jobs in rural America.”

Communities within South County face unique healthcare needs: accessibility issues; a lack of healthcare providers; the needs of an aging population suffering from a greater number of chronic conditions; and larger percentages of uninsured and underinsured residents.

“Meanwhile, rural hospitals are threatened with declining reimbursement rates and disproportionate funding levels that makes it challenging to serve their residents,” Eisinger said.

Sadly, this has all been exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the toll it has taken on rural South County residents, especially farmworkers.

A recent study, conducted by UC Berkeley and focused on farmworkers in the Salinas Valley, found a Covid-19 positivity rate three times higher than the overall state population.

According to results from 1,071 farmworkers, 13% tested positive between July and November. In comparison, about 3% of Californians have tested positive during the pandemic. It also included a survey that found that 57% of those who reported symptoms continued working during the pandemic.

The study provided insight into why these essential, lower-wage laborers have proven to be so vulnerable during the pandemic — and how access to quality healthcare is now more essential than ever.

While such news paints a grim picture, we continue to face these challenges head on. It’s amazing to witness the dedication and commitment of the Mee Memorial staff, providers, nurses and physicians. They help ensure our patients and families receive quality, compassionate healthcare during the most trying of times.

This team, although quite remarkable, does not accomplish this alone, relying on widespread, unwavering community support — beginning with the Mee Memorial Hospital Foundation.

Due to cuts in funding on both state and federal levels, many hospitals have struggled to secure financial support. The independent, nonprofit foundation works diligently to raise funds and increase awareness of rural health-related challenges. Over the past 50 years, it has raised millions of dollars for the betterment of the hospital. Its mission? To “adequately equip, modernize, update and make aesthetically pleasant the hospital facilities.” 

Just last year, the foundation presented a $750,000 check to help expand and renovate the Greenfield Clinic, one of the busiest health centers in South County. The $4 million project allowed for an additional 1,200 patients to gain access to medical care per month, helping meet our community’s growing demand for medical care.

“Our foundation is dedicated to improving access to care in South County by funding important projects,” said foundation president John Greathouse.

Toward its efforts to grow and better support the hospital, the foundation is currently accepting applications for new board members. Those residents interested in applying should send an email (including a bio and resume) to Elsbeth Wetherill at [email protected].

And, remember, the foundation always has a need for volunteers, to help oversee donations, manage endowments and organize capital campaigns. It also hosts special events and fundraising activities where assistance is needed.

Providing financial support to the foundation has never been easier. Donate directly to the Emergency Fund online at Or choose Mee Memorial Hospital Foundation as your charity of choice through Amazon Smile, and a percentage of your purchases are donated to MMHF.

Our source of funds includes bequests, grants and fundraisers, but our mainstay has always been individual contributions from generous donors in our amazing community. We remain acutely aware that every contribution to make the world a better place counts tremendously.

As we prepare to face a new year, and certainly new challenges, we share your hope for a happier and healthier tomorrow. Remember, together we can make a huge difference.


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