Former speaker of the Missouri House Elijah Haahr has been named the executive director of the newly formed Noble Health Foundation, which aims to find health care solutions for struggling rural communities.
Callaway Community Hospital in Fulton is one of Noble Health Corporation's hospitals.
Haahr expressed excitement about his new role of overseeing the nonprofit organization.
"Having the opportunity to work on that in a nonprofit role and search out innovative solutions to the challenges that face rural American health care is a pretty exciting opportunity," Haahr said.
The foundation is being founded by Noble Health Corps, which owns and operates rural hospitals in Missouri.
Noble Health Corps President Tom Carter said Haahr will lead the foundation and help Missourians who live in rural health care settings, which is almost half of the population.
"This is another outreach to educate people in the region of ways to improve their health, which has a direct impact on their quality of life," Carter said. He spoke about the importance of hospitals to communities, which he said is essential to economic development.
"A rural hospital is every bit as vital to infrastructure in a region as roads and bridges," he said. "It's truly the lifeline of that region."
Carter said Haahr's experience in the General Assembly will aid him in his new role. Haahr served in the Missouri House for eight years, including several years as the speaker of the House.
During his time as a legislator, Haahr worked on a variety of rural issues, ranging from broadband internet to eminent domain. He said he was able to get an in-depth look at the disconnect in the rural health care system.
"You get exposed to things in the Legislature you wouldn't normally do," Haahr said. "I can draw a lot of those experiences to educate me in this new position."
Born and raised on small farms, Haahr said he realizes the importance of rural health care, and he talked about his passion to help rural Missourians in his new role.
"My whole life has been raised around rural America, so I think this role suits me, and I suit this role," he said.
The Chartis Center for Rural Health has released reports about the stability of the rural health care system. According to their data, more than 130 rural hospitals have closed across the country since 2010, with seven of those being in Missouri. The research also shows 43 percent of rural hospitals in Missouri are at risk of shutting down.
Haahr acknowledged rural health care faces challenges, and he said health care needs to be relocalized. Instead of relying on city hospitals, Haahr said, rural areas need to have their own hospitals.
"We need to go back to the model where the county hospital can be your resource for a lot of the problems that you face," he said.
While Haahr's role is statewide, he will do a lot of work in Fulton.
He has started by talking to high school superintendents and college presidents to address their needs. A major problem he found is the lack of counseling services in rural areas, which he said could be filled with telemedicine counseling.
"What we don't want to do is have somebody going to school and struggling with personal problems and taking it out on those peers they go to school with or just stopping going to school in general," Haahr said.
Moving forward, Haahr said, new information will be released in the coming months about the foundation's future. With the creation of the new foundation, Carter said Noble Health Corps wants to grow into a widespread rural health care system.
"We're always looking for opportunities where we can combine our mindset of what we want to do with a community that wants to enrich the quality of health care that they provide," he said.