February 18, 2024

With Help from Public and Private Partners, We’re Bringing Better Care to Women and Children in Appalachia

Scott Cantley, President and Chief Executive Officer, Memorial Health System

The challenges of providing the health care people need in rural Appalachia are well known, and I’ve spent my career working to overcome them. That makes what’s happening here with Memorial Health System a tremendous source of hope and excitement for all of us. I hope it also will serve as an inspiration and a model for other rural systems aiming to improve options for their populations.

Last July, we were thrilled to announce the largest-ever investment in health care for southeast Ohio: $120 million to provide top-notch pediatric emergent care and create the region’s only Women’s and Children’s Hospital, in partnership with Akron Children’s Hospital. Once the facility is fully up and running by the end of next year, it will mark a new era for families in our region.

No longer will they face a two-hour drive to the nearest specialty children’s care (whether in Columbus, Akron or Morgantown, West Virginia), and no longer will new moms who need special postpartum care have to leave their families behind to get it. When the facility is complete, high-level care for both moms and babies will be available nearby on our Belpre campus.

This wouldn’t be possible without an unprecedented $30 million investment from the state of Ohio, and we are deeply grateful to State Rep. Jay Edwards and House Speaker Jason Stephens for their leadership in securing that grant. Other funding is being provided by Akron Children’s, financing through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program for rural development, and the generosity of individual and corporate donors.

While the lack of advanced health care for women and children has long been a frustration for rural Ohioans, a single line in the state budget four years ago made the problem more urgent. A new requirement held that expectant mothers with hypertension must be classified as high risk, requiring care at a tertiary facility — one offering specialty care beyond the capacity of most rural health centers.

Hypertension is especially common in our population, so this change had an outsized impact for us. We saw a lot of women separated from their families, delivering their babies two hours from home. Not only is that emotionally difficult for families, but it’s a financial hit to the rural hospitals struggling with the already-difficult economics of delivering babies.

As we saw it, we had a choice: double down and find a way to meet the new requirements or give up on this critical health care service, as many other rural systems have been forced to do. There was no established funding stream for us to go after, so our first step was to approach our partners at Akron Children’s. We already had a longtime collaboration going, and they clearly were willing to establish a presence outside Stark County.

With that piece of the puzzle in place, we went to Gov. Mike DeWine, encouraged by his entire administration’s focus on the needs of children. His support was critical, and our partners in the General Assembly came through with the transformative state grant.

The pediatric emergency department opened in January, and its use is growing every day. It’s wonderful to know that, in the midst of a particularly bad respiratory-infection season, kids in our region are being seen by board-certified specialists in pediatric emergency care.

When the Women’s and Children’s Hospital opens in late 2025, it will be able to handle 1,600 local births per year and provide NICU (specialized neonatal intensive care) to 200 infants.

This project won’t change the difficult economics underlying rural health care: a high proportion of patients served by Medicare or Medicaid rather than commercial insurance, meaning reimbursements to providers are low, along with a population that’s older and less healthy than the U.S. overall.

But I believe it is an example of what rural communities can do with creative collaboration and strong public-private partnerships. Enabling more new moms and their babies to receive high-level care in our community will be a tremendous boost to the quality of life for southeast Ohio families, and I’m thankful Memorial will be a part of it.