MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - For the first time since it's creation, Governor Robert Bentley's Healthcare Improvement Task Force met on Wednesday to discuss what is expected of the group.
The task force, made up of doctors, nurses, mental health officials, dentist and pharmacist, says they are aiming to improve the health care infrastructure in rural areas, as well as combating the increase of diabetes in the state.
Gov. Bentley signed an executive order on April 6, which created the Task Force.
According to officials, the task force, which will be lead by Dr. Don Williamson, the state Health Officer, was highlighted in Governor Bentley's 2015 State of the State address. The 38-member task force also includes doctors, medical school leaders, hospital administrators, professionals in mental health and more.
"As Governor and a physician, the health of Alabamians is extremely important to me," Governor Robert Bentley said. "Alabama faces serious problems with chronic conditions. Many of our health issues are related to lifestyle choices, poverty and access to quality health care. The Alabama Health Care Improvement Task Force will address options to improve the health of Alabamians, including strategies to have more-accessible and more-affordable health care in the state."
Alabama faces several major health problems, ranking among the top ten for diabetes, obesity and deaths by cancer and cardiovascular disease. Officials say the group will suggest changes to state regulations and laws that will focus on ways to improve the health of Alabamians, including having more accessible and affordable health care. The initial recommendations are due to the Governor before the Legislature's 2016 session begins.
"We've got real problems in rural Alabama with hospitals in financial difficulty," said Dr. Don Williamson, State Health Officer and chairman of the new task force. "I've seen, in my last two years, more hospitals close in Alabama than I did in my preceding 20 years."
Bentley says he expects the task force to find ways to keep some kind of healthcare available everywhere in the state.
"Some medicine is better than no medicine, and there are people in this state right now that are getting no healthcare whatsoever," Bentley said.
That possibly could mean re-thinking the definition of a hospital.
"You probably can't keep every rural hospital that is alive today, alive in its same form for the next ten years," Williamson said. " Is a free standing emergency department an option in some of these areas? Is a critical access hospital? We have three of them in the state. Is there a new type of hospital we need to think about?"
Bentley expects this to be a long process, but he would like to see legislation before the 2016 session begins. He also knows this task force can't do it all.
"It's got to be a cooperative effort between the patients and the doctors and the healthcare deliverers."