Death By The Numbers: Region’s Grim Statistics Heighten Health Debate

Death By The Numbers: Region’s Grim Statistics Heighten Health Debate


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As Congress considers repealing the Affordable Care Act, health professionals in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia grapple with what that might mean for a region where many depend on the law for access to care. This occasional series from the ReSource explores what’s ahead for the Ohio Valley after Obamacare. See more stories here >>




Eight protesters along a major thoroughfare in Lexington hoisted signs shaped like tombstones with sayings such as “RIP Trumpcare.” They were hoping Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Andy Barr would catch a glimpse of the demonstration on their way to a press event at Valvoline headquarters down the road. Against the steady hum of streaming cars came a few honks. A middle-aged guy on a Harley gunned his bike through the intersection while laying on the horn.

“I don’t know if they are honking for us or if someone actually got in their way,” said Peter Wedlund, who is wearing a black Grim Reaper cloak.

Even in the very red Ohio Valley region a growing number of people are protesting the American Health Care Act, which would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

Susan Wheeler Ferguson and Matt Simpson protest the AHCA in Lexington, Ky. (Mary Meehan/ Ohio Valley ReSource)

Some protesters who have long been in the trenches on the health care fight said they are newly motivated by some startling findings recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s publication JAMA Internal Medicine.

That research grabbed headlines for its conclusions that in some parts of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia people can now expect to live shorter lives than their parents did. This goes against the widespread trend of longer lives, and the grim mortality statistics put the stakes of the health debate in stark relief.

A Health Divide

Wedlund had concerns about healthcare in Kentucky before. The  JAMA statistics just confirmed his worst suspicions about how “Trumpcare” might play out in the region.

“The life span is going down. It is actually worst in Hal Rogers’ 5th District,” he said. Rogers’ district covers eastern and southeastern Kentucky.

Folks like Wedlund who’ve been following health policy knew instinctively what the statistics published by JAMA spotlight. Together, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia lay claim to 27 of the 50 counties with the country’s worst trends in life spans. Of the 10 counties in the U.S. with the worst declines in life expectancy, eight are in Kentucky.

Rep. Barr’s 6th District includes two of those counties, Powell and Estill. Rep. Rogers’ district includes six of those counties – Breathit, Clay, Lee,…

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