Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas

We didn’t need a worldwide pandemic to understand that health care is distributed unevenly in poor states like Louisiana. But COVID-19 has vividly demonstrated what happens in a community where the rich get better care than the poor.

Hospitals have to treat all comers, and they do, but they also need to keep the lights on, and that takes paying customers. So medical providers tend to migrate to communities where they can attract patients with insurance. Exhibit A is Baton Rouge, where the major hospitals have all moved south and west to Essen or Bluebonnet or Siegen.

So it was heartening this month to see that someone is doing something bold to even out access to quality health care.

Ochsner Health is Louisiana’s largest system and is growing its statewide footprint. This month, Ochsner announced plans to spend $100 million opening 15 community health centers in underserved areas, including six in New Orleans and two each in Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

Warner Thomas, who runs the health care network, outlined a bold vision in which Ochsner would help lift Louisiana off the bottom of the pile in national health care rankings over the course of this decade.

“Our vision is to address the most critical health needs in the community," said Thomas, who pledged to help "move Louisiana from 49th to 40th over the next decade."

He was referring to Louisiana’s place in America’s Health Rankings, a state-by-state analysis by United Health Foundation. The foundation ranks based on factors like disease rates, obesity, childhood poverty, smoking, and violent crime. Louisiana has never been better than 47th, and that was in 2009.

The outlook for health care in Louisiana has already been brightening.

Gov. John Bel Edwards' decision to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act has added nearly half a million people to the ranks of the insured. That has already led to improvements in one health care desert: North Baton Rouge. Clinics and an emergency room at Baton Rouge General's Mid City campus are notable expansions.

The increase in the number of insured patients is one reason providers are more comfortable moving into underserved areas.

In addition to building the new clinics, Ochsner will partner with Xavier University to create the Ochsner Xavier Center for Health Equity, which will serve as a think tank to address disparities in the state, according to Xavier President Reynold Verret.

Ochsner will provide free medical school tuition, a $15 million commitment, to students who choose to practice psychiatry or primary care if they agree to stay with Ochsner for five years.

Another $15 million will help expand the number of nurses and medical technicians in the state through Louisiana’s Community and Technical Colleges.

It shouldn’t take a pandemic to focus our attention on the health care needs of our neighbors here in Louisiana. But at a time when the coronavirus crisis is presenting financial challenges for medical providers, it’s comforting to see Ochsner is leaning in to solve a problem that has been with us for generations.