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Four north country residents named to commission to improve health care system

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Four residents from Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties said they are looking forward to working with both Northern New York and downstate representatives to formulate a plan to improve the region’s health care system.

Tedra L. Cobb, president and owner of consulting firm Tedra L. Cobb and Associates; state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie R-Heuvelton; Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa; and Denise K. Young, executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, will accomplish that with the help of 14 professionals and dignitaries who have been named to the North Country Health Systems Redesign Commission. The goal, according to a news release from the state Department of Health, is to “create an effective, integrated health care delivery system for preventative, medical, behavioral, and long-term care services to all communities” in Northern New York.

The commission will assess the scope of care in the north country, assess the regional population’s health care needs and the system’s ability to meet them, recommend ways to ensure providers survive, and identify opportunities for mergers, affiliations or partnerships. It will also make specific recommendations that providers and communities can implement to improve access and develop recommendations for distribution of re-investment grants.

Many hospitals and health care organization in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties have already been working toward that, Mrs. Young said.

“Our electronic medical record, health information exchange, disease registry, and physicians working together will prepare us well,” she said. “The role of the four people here serving on the commission is to help make sure needs of our population are taken into consideration.”

North country health care officials knew something was coming down the pipeline. In September, during a conference of the advocacy group Hospital Association of New York State, state Health Commissioner Nirav R. Shah announced he was organizing three groups to develop collaboration strategies: hospice/long-term care; acute, emergency room and observation beds; and primary care.

Back then, River Hospital CEO Ben Moore III said the commissioner told those in attendance that there was “very little time to implement change.” Now, a commission is in place to further explore similar ideas.

During the last two years, hospitals within Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties have anticipated new state directives, and with the help of a consulting firm and the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, they have been working together to help reduce the number of unnecessary repeat Medicaid admissions and improve patient outcomes.

“The whole group of hospitals here has been looking at how health care is changing,” Mrs. Young said. “I’ve been working with the health care system for a long time. I’m honored to be asked, and will do my best to help meet the health care needs of the north country.”

Mrs. Russell said she is honored to be appointed to the commission, especially after she has “worked to address several problems in our health care community” since she was elected.

“I’m happy we’re going to come up with a more holistic approach,” she said. “It’s going to be an opportunity to find our strengths in other areas we may be able to get in before a crisis occurs.”

Both she and Mrs. Ritchie said they have received requests for help from struggling health care institutions.

“Hardly a month goes by I don’t have some emergency or critical call at the last minute,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “There’s some real challenges for health care providers now.”

A big challenge, she said, has been funding. The fast-track proposal from the state health commissioner will be good for those local facilities that face current critical issues, she said.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Cobb said she believes she was asked to be a part of the commission because of her extensive involvement in the local health care system. She was the first executive director for the St. Lawrence Health Initiative, served on various Boards of Directors, and is a grant reviewer for the federal Health and Human Services administration and Rural Health Care Services Outreach Program.

“Part of the commission is to listen,” she said. “I think it’s a good time to be looking at health care, and to be reviewing what we’re doing — what we’re doing well, and what we should be doing better. What I was asked to bring to the table was patient advocacy. For me, that’s a priority.”

The commission will meet early next month, and submit its recommendations to Mr. Shah by March 31.

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