"This issue is so important down the road and we're not prepared to deal with it," Punt said in calling for an all-day meeting that would assemble politicians, federal, state and local officials, health providers and others.
During a 45-minute afternoon session, legislators from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia received what they termed a "pessimistic" outlook on the future of rural health care.
All four states face a shortage of nurses, said William Murray, vice president of the Virginia Hospital & Health Care Association.
Murray said the problem is twofold: Recruitment of new nurses and retention of experienced nurses.
Punt said Pennsylvania is considering financial incentives and tax credits to help alleviate its shortage of nurses. Murray said the state might also want to consider a loan repayment program similar to the one offered to physicians as another inducement.
Joseph B. May III, director of Health Planning for Pennsylvania, said states might also want to consider uniform rules on the use of "physician extenders," such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
Pennsylvania and West Virginia health officials said that community-based programs can offer innovative solutions to rural health care problems.
D. Parker Haddix, director of the Health Care Authority of West Virginia, said his state is trying several computer-based programs in an effort to improve rural health care. One program not only collects patient information, but aids in patient diagnosis.
May said Pennsylvania has changed the way it looks at community health needs. Instead of merely considering resources, May said Pennsylvania officials are examining the underlying factors that cause health problems, including "tobacco use, being overweight, a lack of exercise, poor nutrition."
May said Pennsylvania officials are trying to integrate all health resources - federal, state, local, or private - as they work to develop health-care solutions.