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Rural Montanans with Disabilities Face Challenges from Home to Hospital

People in rural communities have higher rates of disabilities and tend to be older than in urban areas. (alonaphoto/Adobe Stock)
People in rural communities have higher rates of disabilities and tend to be older than in urban areas. (alonaphoto/Adobe Stock)
April 22, 2020

HELENA, Mont. -- Montanans with disabilities face multiple barriers to care in the coronavirus pandemic, and those issues are compounded in rural parts of the state.

Fewer than a quarter of Montana counties have Intensive Care Unit beds. Lillie Grieman, project director for the Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities, said that means having to travel long distances in an emergency.

For example, in Toole County, hit hard by the coronavirus, the closest ICU beds are in Great Falls, about 85 miles away.

"Not only do you have to travel far to get to beds," Grieman said, "You're going to a place where there are more people, where there is also an outbreak, and those beds may also still be in high demand. So, that's what I find particularly disconcerting."

Greiman noted that rural communities also have higher rates of people with disabilities, about 18% compared with 12% in metro areas, and the average age also skews higher in rural areas.

Montana is reporting 437 cases and a dozen deaths from COVID-19.

Disability-rights groups have raised concerns that once a person with disabilities gets to the hospital, they could be last in line if resources are scarce. Some of the crisis-care plans in states across the country ration care at their expense.

Travis Hoffman, advocacy coordinator for Summit Independent Living in Missoula, participated in a state work group on rationing care in a doomsday scenario as the virus began to spread. He said the group discussed making medical decisions based on science rather than perceived quality of life.

"Ensuring that decisions about everybody -- not just people with disabilities -- are based off of actual science and concrete medical principles," Hoffman explained, "and that if need be, people with disabilities would be granted reasonable accommodations to receive the care that they need."

The Department of Public Health and Human Services didn't respond by deadline to a request for comment on what rationing plans look like in Montana.

Disclosure: Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities contributes to our fund for reporting on Disabilities, Health Issues, Rural/Farming, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT