VIRGINIA’S population continues to surge toward the cities and suburbs and away from most of the rest of the state. From 2010 to 2018, the state’s population grew about 6.5 percent, yet 51 of the state’s 95 counties shrank.
Among the causes and effects: a deficiency of medical care in less-populated localities. A dearth of doctors makes living in those areas less appealing, and the shrinking population means newly minted physicians tend to look elsewhere for employment.
The Virginia Tobacco Revitalization Commission is trying to do something about that. Last week, the commission approved a program that will pay an extra $24,000 over two years to doctors willing to live and work in 40 localities within the state’s Southside and Southwest regions, with the possibility of another $24,000 if they choose to stay for another two years.
The Virginia Department of Health already offers a program awarding up to $140,000 over four years for doctors and other health care professionals working in underserved areas. That program couldn’t fund all the applicants, so the tobacco commission has stepped in.
Anyone can apply, but preference will be given to those who were raised in the Southside and Southwest.
Lack of medical care facilities has long plagued the more rural and less affluent parts of Virginia.
In 2013, the only hospital in Lee County, in the state’s southwest corner, closed. Six years of effort and broken commitments later, there is still no hospital there. Some county residents live well over an hour from a hospital, a long enough lapse to be the difference between life and death.
The tobacco commission sprang from a successful lawsuit brought against big tobacco companies by 46 states that led to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. The four companies sued were required to pay billions of dollars to the states. The suit sought to make the companies pay for some of the damage to public health caused by tobacco.
It seems appropriate, then, that some of that money is now coming back in the form of inducements to give rural Virginians better access to health care.
The new program will also make it easier for young people to live and work where they grew up. With part of the state growing while the other part shrinks, keeping some of the best and brightest back home to serve their communities as physicians is a laudable goal.
So is anything that works toward giving every Virginian good and timely health care. That’s why the tobacco commission’s offer seems like a win-win for Virginia.
And it’s comfortingly ironic that money derived from smoking tobacco—the leading cause of preventable death in the United States—will be spent on helping rural Virginians live longer and healthier lives.