Health care has emerged as a major issue in southern Missouri’s Eighth Congressional district race between U.S. Rep. Jason Smith (R-Salem) and his Democratic challenger Kathy Ellis.

The sprawling district includes 30 southern Missouri counties and about 20,000 square miles. It stretches from Jefferson County, south of St. Louis, all the way to the Bootheel. It also includes southern Missouri towns like West Plains, Ava, and St. James. The district hasn’t sent a Democrat to Washington since Congressman Bill Burlison, who served from 1969 to 1981.

The Eighth Congressional district has seen five hospital closings since 2016:

** Parkland Health Center in Farmington (2016)
** Southeast Health Center of Reynolds County in Ellington (2016)
** Southeast Health Center of Ripley County in Doniphan (2018)
** Twin Rivers Regional Medical Center in Kennett (2018)
** Black River Medical Center in Poplar Bluff (2019)

Ellis, a social worker who lives in Festus, supports Medicaid expansion and says federally qualified health centers must be expanded in southeast Missouri.

“So that they’re delivering primary care, behavioral health, dental, OBGYN, everything that the area needs,” Ellis says.

As for Congressman Smith, he says Medicaid expansion is a state issue. He has described the hospital closings as “unacceptable” several times, during interviews with Missourinet. He notes that people die when hospitals close, noting that rural hospital closures are associated with an increase in an area’s mortality rate.

But Smith says attention hasn’t been given to the hospitals he’s worked to save, like the Iron County Medical Center in Pilot Knob. Smith tells Missourinet the facility was days away from closing, and that he and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R) worked with the hospital administrator to keep it open.

Smith also says that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he immediately got hospital administrators, local health clinics and doctors on the phone, and brought their needs to the president. He notes he successfully urged the Trump Administration this year to reverse its earlier rule requiring telehealth to have audio and video, saying that’s been huge for the district, which has major issues with lack of rural broadband and cell service.

“And so working with the president (Donald Trump), I was able to get him to do an executive order to rescind it, that they could do telehealth by just audio. It didn’t have to be audio and visual,” Smith says.

Congressman Smith also filed legislation in July called the “Saving Rural Hospitals from Closure Act,” which would keep rural hospitals open by allowing the HHS Secretary to give hospitals flexibility to remain financially viable.

The two candidates agree that access to quality health care is critical in southeast Missouri, and that the district needs every hospital and rural clinic in it.

They also agree on the need for improved rural broadband in the district.

As for Ms. Ellis, she reiterates that health care is the top priority for residents in the district. She notes it’s impoverished and that some southeast Missourians must drive two hours for health care.

“We have huge infant/mother mortality rates in the Bootheel and we have fully one-third of the 16 counties surrounding the Bootheel where children don’t have enough to eat on the weekends,” says Ellis.

She says her priorities are the priorities of district residents, and that it’s time to have a representative who listens to the people.

During her interview with Missourinet, she notes that many southeast Missouri Republicans have run unopposed for state legislative seats during recent years.

She says there’s not been a lot of energy from the Missouri Democratic Party, for southeast Missouri and other rural areas. She says that’s happened around the nation as well.

But Ellis emphasizes that elections are won and lost in rural areas, and that Democrats must focus on rural America. She says winning can take multiple election cycles, and says young voters in her district are energized.

Ellis put 75,000 miles on her car in 2018, when she faced Smith. Smith won with about 73 percent of the vote, getting 194,042 votes to Ellis’ 66,151 votes.

Congressman Smith describes the district as “God’s Country.” It includes the Mississippi Delta and the Ozark Hills. He says his priority is to represent his constituents.

“That is to make sure our rural Missouri values has a strong voice and is represented in Washington D.C. Those values include limited government, freedom, lower taxes,” says Smith.

Smith says the tax cut signed by President Trump should be made permanent, along with doubling the child tax credit.

He also says the 2020 election is not just about the next two or four years, it’s about the next 50 years.

Click here to listen to Brian Hauswirth’s full interview with U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, which was recorded on October 26, 2020:

Click here to listen to Brian Hauswirth’s full interview with Democrat Kathy Ellis of Festus, which was recorded on October 26, 2020:

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