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North Country News

Development Of Rural Health Care Topic Of Discussion At Adirondack Experience

View of Adirondacks from Lake Placid
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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View of Adirondacks from Lake Placid

The Adirondack Experience, previously called the Adirondack Museum, is holding a series of conversations on various topics affecting the Adirondacks.  The latest brought the leaders of Hudson Headwaters to the museum to discuss the company’s 40 years of developing a rural health care network within the Blue Line.

The Adirondacks span nearly 10,000 square miles across the northern tier of New York state and includes towns, villages and hamlets interspersed amid wilderness and New York’s highest mountains. The Hudson Headwaters Health Network is one of the primary health care providers in the rural region.  It has 21 health centers that treat about 1,200 people daily. It’s taken nearly 40 years for the network to build across the Adirondacks.

In 1974 founding CEO and Executive Chairman John Rugge came to Chestertown to practice medicine for a few months. He had planned to return to Albany but saw too many general practitioners leaving the rural communities. He says the network germinated after he heard about the idea of community health centers four years later. 

“At a time when I had a slip of paper in my desk to close the Chester Hill center because we couldn’t afford all this we eked it out with this combination of local support that continued and continued and continued," Rugge said. "And a requirement of this grant was we could no longer be part of the hospital. And so 40 years ago we had to go independent and create Hudson Headwaters Health Network.”

Rugge said over time there was an spike in demand for doctors in the Adirondacks caused in part by the aftermath of World War II. 

“Many of our local communities in the area had been populated by Jewish physicians fleeing Hitler," Rugge explained. "Having all come at the same time 30 years later they were beginning to retire, all at the same time. So what we faced was the prospect of a horrible vacuum with no local service. But it turns out our local towns, our volunteers, local people, certainly our patients came together and we were able to do what turned out to be only a start of something that is now much bigger.”

Rugge says over the years towns and physicians in rural communities have turned to the network for help. 

“Who found in a changing time how heath care is changing was simply making it more and more difficult, verging on impossible, to maintain the same kind of very small practice that they had started with and were looking for a way to come together for a new strength, new ability, new services," said Rugge.

The Hudson Headwaters officials say access to health care is more than ability to see a doctor. CEO Dr. Tucker Slingerland finds it’s also lack of insurance or ability to pay and other factors. 

“Today a lot of access is contingent on internet access and access to reliable transportation," Slingerlands said. "We do a lot of work advocating really for the region around some of the key parts around access: technology but also bringing care to people’s homes. Which I think is going to become increasingly needed in places where the population’s getting older. Over time we’ve really worked hard to evolve to meet those access needs which have really extended beyond the one-on-one encounter.”

Dr. Slingerland expects more challenges as health care changes and the population of the Adirondacks ages.

“We’re seeing more very complicated chronic conditions that really need close attention and coordination with our hospital partners," Slingerlands explained. "We’re probably going to see a lot more of that. The care has certainly gotten, it feels like it’s gotten, more complicated. We’re doing everything we can to anticipate that. We have a program we’re launching in 2023 for all-inclusive care for the elderly.”

Audio is courtesy of Mountain Lake PBS.

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