joined the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health (PORH) in
1994 as its first full-time staff person. After a
two-year hiatus, she came back to PORH in 1999 to serve
as its director, a position she still holds. Prior to
PORH, Davis worked with schizophrenics in community-based
mental health programs and in federally-funded programs
to help vulnerable populations find employment. She
volunteered for almost two decades as an advocate for the
prison population and worked at the county prison as a
volunteer and as a paid intern during graduate
school. Before going to graduate school, she was a
coordinator of international research in the Department
of Meteorology at Penn State.
Davis serves on a number of national and state boards
of directors, commissions, advisory councils and
committees that address rural health policy, rural
development and special populations. Among her national
activities, she is the co-chair of the National
Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH)
Policy Committee and sits on NOSORH's Board of Directors.
She is the Pennsylvania representative to the Appalachian
Regional Commission's Health Policy Advisory Committee
and the Mid-Atlantic Telehealth Resource Center. In
the state, she is the chair of the Legislative Committee
for the Pennsylvania Rural Health Association and serves
on numerous boards for state agencies and organizations
such as the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Her
past awards include the NOSORH Distinguished Service
Award, the state rural health association's Outstanding
Leadership Award, and the Award for Individual
Contributions to Public Health from the Pennsylvania
Public Health Association. Her office also received
the NOSORH Award of Merit.
Davis earned a bachelor's degree in
sociology/psychology from Clarion University and a
master's degree in health administration from Penn State.
A lifelong resident of Pennsylvania, she lives in
Boalsburg with her husband and daughter. In her
spare time, she entertains, attends her daughter's
sporting activities, and tries to get a few minutes of
sleep in between. (For more on Davis, see her
What are some of the big rural issues in your state right
There are more than a few issues in the state that affect
rural communities: access to healthcare providers,
access to payment mechanisms and access to
transportation. About 10 percent of our population
is uninsured and although that has been addressed
somewhat by the Affordable Care Act, a good number of the
newly insured are in the metropolitan areas. As a
state that has not expanded Medicaid through the
Affordable Care Act, it's estimated that Pennsylvania
will continue to have about 700,000 who will remain
uninsured. That's a challenge for all of our
healthcare delivery systems and for safety net providers,
just as it is in many states.
Hydraulic fracturing or
“fracking” in the Marcellus
Shale is an issue that has affected a large part of the
state and, for a time, there was no conversation I had
that didn't end up about fracking. The Marcellus Shale
lies under about 95,000 square miles in Pennsylvania and
is the largest source of natural gas in the United
States. Although gas companies knew for years that
the gas deposit was there, it wasn't until Penn State
developed the technology to get at the gas that drilling
began in earnest. In communities where fracking
occurs, it affects every part of society.
Fracking requires a tremendous amount of water to cool
the drills and most of the water is trucked in…and then
the contaminated water is trucked out. The huge
increase in truck traffic on rural roads has been an
issue—the noise, public safety issues around
increased truck traffic, and the conditions of the roads,
which deteriorate under the weight of all those trucks.
A friend of mine who lives in a rural county that
has experienced tremendous drilling activity counted 125
water trucks in one hour while she was out
There's the issue of land leases. Penn State
Extension got out in front of all of this—when
drilling companies were negotiating leases with
landowners—and helped to educate landowners
about drilling rights, expiration dates, and drafting
wills and transferring wealth.
Drilling also has had an impact on affordable
housing. Many of these counties are economically
stressed with families struggling to find decent
homes. The gas companies can afford to sign
long-term leases at high prices, leaving few options for
permanent residents with low incomes. Some companies have
built hotels and mini apartment complexes for workers.
We've been hearing from some of the primary care clinics
that they were seeing higher numbers of the uninsured.
But it's hard to tell if that is directly related to
Marcellus Shale drilling since it is hard to connect
patients directly or indirectly with drilling
activity. That's especially challenging with those
who work for contractors and sub-contractors.
There also are anecdotal reports about higher rates of
STDs, pregnancy, prostitution, and drug abuse. One
very rural county reported that their murder rate had
doubled—suggesting it was related to fracking.
I was part of a research group at Penn State that
looked into the effects of drilling in four counties in
the state that had high drilling activity; we tried to
assess the impacts on demographics, housing, crime,
education, economic development, agriculture and health
care. We found that, in some cases, it is easy to
correlate changes to drilling activity but for other
topics, it is very challenging to do so—and to
demonstrate a cause-and-effect relationship.
And in many communities, the gas companies have tried to
be good neighbors and have put a lot of money into road
repair and community infrastructure. One company
gave very generously toward the building of a new
Critical Access Hospital this last year. So, for
every topic related to drilling, there is an argument and
Your SORH employs a farmworker protection
specialist—perhaps the only one of its kind in
the country. What needs does this program address?
About 10 years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of
Agriculture (PDA) asked if my office could develop a
technical and compliance
assistance program on the Environmental Protection
Agency's Worker Protection Standard (WPS) for
agricultural producers. These standards regulate
how pesticides for agricultural production are used and
stored so as to reduce the likelihood of pesticide
Jim, our rural farmworker protection specialist, travels
about 25,000 miles a year around the state visiting
agricultural production sites that fall under WPS.
He provides compliance assistance to growers on
issues such as signage, the use of personal protective
equipment, record-keeping, pesticide storage, etc.
He also distributes videos that have been developed for
specific sectors of the Ag industry (like orchards,
Christmas tree growers, and mushroom growers). His
purpose is to help the growers do the right thing so that
when they are inspected by PDA, they can pass with flying
colors. Jim also has become a one-stop shop of
information for the producers on agricultural safety
programs, other resources in the state that are
Ag-related, and he has become very familiar with the ACA
and the Health Insurance Marketplace so that he can be a
source of information to farmers needing health
insurance. They also ask him questions about other laws
and regulations related to their specific production
Are there any other SORH programs you would like to brag
I'd like to brag about everything that we do, but that
would take up too much space! We deliver great
continuing education programs, including the only migrant
and immigrant farmworker health conference in the state;
we have terrific partnerships across Pennsylvania, in the
northeast region, and nationally that help us do great
work; and, through our Flex program, we have initiated a
data-driven population health initiative in central
Pennsylvania. We also have been able to engage in a
wide range of research efforts that have added to the
knowledge base in our office and in the state.
Before you worked for the Pennsylvania SORH, you worked
in a prison. How did you end up there—and what
did you do?
My first job out of college was working in a
community-based residential treatment program for
schizophrenics. And then, through an agency funded
by federal job training partnership funds, I worked in
local economic development. It's how I got
interested in prison populations. I was invited by the
Pennsylvania Prison Society to go to the county jail and
talk with guys about options for employment after
release. It was the first time I'd ever been to
prison and I became very, very involved in the local
chapter of the society. It was a population that I
thought was in need of support and advocacy and I knew a
lot of guys in our county prison because many of them had
been clients of mine when I worked in the community-based
Every Tuesday night for 12 years, I went into prison as a
volunteer. I went to graduate school because I
wanted to work in prison health administration. My
graduate program required a summer internship so I did
mine at the county prison. I very quickly
discovered that being there from 9:00 am-5:00 pm Monday
through Friday was really different than being a
weekly volunteer. Even though I had known some of the
inmates for more than a decade, they tried every trick in
the book. It was like I didn't know
them—or anything at all about working in a
prison. The final straw came later that summer when
a local woman, who was a pillar in the community, was
brutally murdered in broad daylight on the side of the
road by a local guy who wanted to impress a girl.
The next morning when I came to work, he was sleeping
like a baby in solitary confinement. I
thought—that's it; I'm done. I believe
that everyone has the right to dignity and respect but
that was too much.
However, I think that my time working in prison helped
foster a desire in me to advocate for those without a
voice and for vulnerable populations. And it made
me absolutely grateful to have been offered a job in
Why is advocacy important to you?
I'm not sure that there was any specific trigger growing
up, but I always felt that I was very fortunate and had
been given, just through the luck of the draw, a life
that was full of opportunities. I am the only child
of a single parent who, when I was growing up, worked
full-time and went to school full-time. At a really
early age, I was responsible for running the household
since she was pretty busy. I always felt that I was
a really valued part of keeping our lives going and that
was a very good feeling. I also saw first-hand that
hard work paid off and learned that if I worked hard
enough, almost anything I wanted to achieve was within my
reach. Not everyone has those choices.
How do you apply that interest in your present work?
I am part of a group in my county that started, in 1995,
a volunteer coalition that supports mammograms for the
un- and underinsured. Whenever I start to whine
about my life, I listen to the stories of the (mostly)
women who call for a mammogram. Unemployment.
Illness. Homelessness. You name it. And many
of them are facing a potential cancer diagnosis.
That makes me shut up in an instant and remember to be
grateful for what I have.
What about working in rural health most appeals to you?
There are several things. First, I think that
access to quality, affordable health care is a right, not
a privilege, so it is gratifying to be able to have a
voice in that issue. Second, I have the chance to
work with some of the smartest and most talented people
in my state and across the nation who are passionate
about advancing rural health and who always teach me
You are a lifelong resident of Pennsylvania. What
do you like about living there?
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I think that having
lived in the state my entire life helps me be an
effective advocate. We are the Keystone State and
we played so many important roles in shaping this
country. I love all of the wild and crazy nuances
that every corner of this state has—I can't
imagine living anywhere else.
Opinions expressed are those of the interviewee
and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural
Health Information Hub.
Back to: Spring 2014 Issue