For more than eight decades, my family has lived in Springfield. I love this community and consider my role as a public servant and elected official one of the greatest honors I’ve experienced. Each day, I strive to improve the lives – and health – of the people I serve and to strengthen the communities where my family, friends, neighbors and the people I represent live, work and play.

One of the critical components of a strong community is access to high-quality health care. Not everyone in the communities I represent can access the health care system as easily as they might want. Many obstacles still stand in the way of the timely use of effective health services. Such barriers require realistic understanding with a commonsense approach.

One of our region’s greatest assets is our health care infrastructure. While some communities have seen access to care deteriorate, we are incredibly fortunate to live in an area with some of the best health care systems, facilities, and providers in the region and the state. For generations, our hospitals and clinics have served the people of central Illinois with convenient, local access to high-quality primary, preventive and specialty care. Despite the pressures and economic impact of COVID-19, health care organizations and their essential workforce never stopped providing care for our communities.

Our regional health care infrastructure provides thousands of jobs in the region, generates millions of dollars in local tax revenue, and serves more than 1 million individuals and families across central Illinois. Our robust and diverse health care infrastructure means we don’t need to travel to Chicago or St. Louis for high-quality care.

However, the strength and stability of that infrastructure wasn’t built overnight, nor was it created by accident. Each organization functions, operates and provides exceptional care and services focusing on quality, value, and efficiency to compete against larger systems in Chicago and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, not everyone can easily access such high-quality health care infrastructure. A recent Southern Illinois University report on rural health indicated that individuals and families living in rural counties face more barriers to providers and care. As a result, they also suffer from worse health outcomes and experience higher mortality rates than those in urban counties. In addition, rural counties have nearly half as many physicians, and it is becoming harder to recruit and retain an adequate number of health care professionals in many rural communities. The report recommended that we take steps to increase investment in our health care workforce, strengthen public-private health care collaboratives and partnerships, and augment our health technology infrastructure to address and overcome these barriers.

Fortunately, health care organizations based in Springfield and Decatur have expanded their service area to include numerous rural communities throughout the region. They offer primary and specialty care services, and some doctors drive from town to town to see patients. These innovative approaches improve patient access to timely and appropriate care and help preserve critical community hospitals, clinics and providers.

Yet, we must not ignore the challenges patients and providers face. We must collectively take steps to protect, improve and expand locally owned and operated health care organizations. Doing so will enhance the quality of life, health and well-being of the people in central Illinois.

Additionally, I will work with hospitals and providers this legislative session to strengthen our local health care workforce. I intend to introduce legislation that addresses shortfalls in clinical care, advances efforts toward recruitment and retention, and ensures we are better prepared for future public health emergencies, natural disasters or downturns in the economy.

Together, we can leverage the diversity and strength of regional health care infrastructure to address these issues and stave off the health care challenges, pressures and problems confronting far too many communities across the state.