On a cold morning in January, a man with a wind-burnt face sits in front of large window at the Embers Grill in Joseph, Oregon. He wears muddy boots and a wool coat over a flannel shirt. Out the window, snow drifts reflect the sun and Wallowa Mountains. Above him a homemade flier reading “Save our Healthcare!” is taped to the wall announcing a local community meeting.
Asked to remain anonymous, he said that he works three jobs and sells firewood on the side to make ends meet. Noting that many of his neighbors work more than one job as well––calling it the “rural Oregon hustle”–– he lowers his head when he mentions that without the Oregon Health Plan, he and his neighbors would be without options for affordable healthcare if they were to get into an accident. Looking up at the healthcare flier, he said:
“This isn’t about politics or handouts. It’s about people working hard for a little peace of mind, knowing that an accident or the unexpected isn’t going to leave us homeless."
North Broadway Avenue in Burns, Oregon. Population 2,806. Rural southeast Oregon.
A decade ago, on the other side of the state, the temperature hovered at freezing while a pregnant mother stood at a bus stop with her two small children. She clutched the children in each hand, shielding their faces from the bite of the wind.
Her name is Allison Bonato-Garcia and, at this point in her life, was a recently single mother after her husband was incarcerated. On this particular day, she was taking her children in for routine check-ups, and planning how to move to Tillamook to stay with her parents.
Today, after a challenging decade and move––and with help from the community––Allison works in public health in Tillamook County where she helps the same young mothers and community members access critical health resources.
Allison Bonato-Garcia now helps those struggling to make ends meet in Tillamook County.
Thousands in rural Oregon struggle with similar challenges as well as access to public health services and healthcare options. Many don’t have the means or support systems to get to and from appointments. Others struggle to maneuver what seems like a maze of paperwork and bureaucracy. For others, keeping previously scheduled appointments falls to the bottom of any given day’s to-do list––often behind caring for young children and putting food on the table. Robin Watts, the nursing supervisor and manager of public health programs in Tillamook County recalled a few challenges she experiences on a daily basis:
"One couple that we worked with recently was staying seven miles up the Wilson River. The pregnant mom would walk fourteen miles roundtrip into town anytime that she had an appointment. Basic transportation options and life’s daily priorities often stand in the way of accessing healthcare for many in rural Oregon. And these challenges are there before we even start talking about access to affordable health insurance.”
She said improving health in rural Oregon is contingent upon increasing and improving access to both insurance for individuals and public health services in general. But geographically large rural counties––often requiring hours of travel time to the nearest town––and poverty create a challenging stage for making this happen, she added.
Health challenges in rural central Oregon.
A candid take on what rural communities need.