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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — An heir and trustee of the billions left by famed hotelier Leona Helmsley recently spoke in Pierre about all the good his late grandmother's money can do for rural health in South Dakota.
"She was a strong businesswoman with strong business ideals," Walter Panzirer said. "And she demanded quality. But she also was a very caring person. She gave anonymously throughout her life to many causes, such as Hurricane Katrina victims and to many health care issues, such as diabetes."
Panzirer, in his late 30s, has lived in Pierre four years, and in South Dakota 15 years, including a stint as a police officer in Mitchell. He grew up in a farming area of central California, Panzirer said.
His father, Jay Panzirer, was the only son from Leona Helmsley's first marriage. She married two men subsequently, including hotelier Harry Helmsley in 1972. He died in 1997.
Helmsley became a real estate millionaire on her own but joined with Harry, became a billionaire known as "the Queen of Mean," for running their real estate empire with a not-so-velvet fist. She served prison time after her conviction on federal tax evasion charges in 1989, the Pierre Capital Journal (http://bit.ly/1FcJGjB ) reported.
She died in 2007, leaving a fortune said to be more than $5 billion. After her prison term she became known for her giving, especially $5 million to families of New York firefighters after 9/11 and $25 million to New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
She left her fortune of $5 billion, at her death, to the Leona B. and Harry M. Helmsley Charitable Trust, of which Walter Panzirer is a trustee.
Panzirer said during his appearance in Pierre that only recently has the transfer of her estate into the Charitable Trust's endowment, been virtually completed making about $5.5 billion available for philanthropy.
His grandmother gave the charitable trust "full authority" to spend her fortune, he said.
"We looked at her giving patterns and want to do the same kinds of giving."
Looking for ways to spend the money according to his grandmother's wishes, he and other Trust leaders did scientific surveys, looking for gaps in health care.
Their gaze soon focused on South Dakota and its neighboring states - North Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa, Panzirer said.
"Those states in the Upper Midwest receive only 1.2 percent of all private philanthropy for health care and 80 percent of that 1.2 percent goes to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota," he said. "Mayo is a fine place, but Mayo doesn't come to you, you go to Mayo."
A major focus of his Trust is improving access to health care, taking it where the people are, even if they are spread far apart.
It means there is great need in South Dakota for improved health care, he said, and that's why he's here.
This state represents the need in rural America for better access to health care, with people spread across vast spaces with too few medical professionals and facilities and lots of poverty, especially on Indian reservations, he said.
"Rural health care is extremely under-served in these areas."
The Trust has put its money where it says the need is.
Outside of the New York headquarters of the Helmsley Trust, the only other office is the one in Sioux Falls.
On Thursday, May 14, at a two-hour forum at the State Capitol, Panzirer introduced several health leaders and unveiled findings from a new survey, "Focus on South Dakota: A Picture of Health."
The 135-page survey is "an investment in the future health of South Dakotans," he said. "Everyone from government officials to healthcare providers needs data in order to understand and effectively address the health-related issues our state is facing."
Mental health and substance abuse are key issues highlighted in the survey of 7,675 "randomly selected households," with 519 supplemental surveys by "homeless, immigrant and refugee and housing insecure populations."
It's filled with state maps with county-by-county breakdowns of findings, some of which raise obvious questions about Pierre and Fort Pierre because the sister cities appear divided by more than the Missouri River.
For the "prevalence of anxiety," for example, a map shows a state-wide average of 8 percent reporting, with Hughes County at 2 percent and Stanley County at 14 percent. With post-traumatic stress disorder, the state average is 6 percent prevalence; Hughes County is at 1 percent, Stanley County is at 20 percent.
Such county-wide analyses "identified pockets of high prevalence of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse and drug abuse," according to the survey report. It also shows where needs need to be met, where more services should be focused, according to the report.
Nothing like this has been done before, Panzirer said at the forum: looking so closely at the health needs in large, and largely rural, area.
About 87 percent of South Dakota's geography, after all, is in farms and ranches. There are lots of such studies filled with data for urban areas, but not that focused on rural populations that are short on physicians and nurses, he said.
The detailed results now available can work as a catalyst to help "stakeholders," including Avera-St. Mary's Hospital in Pierre and the giant Sanford Health, as well as legislators and health professionals find ways to improve health care access in the state, according to Panzirer.
The survey was funded by the Helmsley Trust through a two-year grant of $1.4 million to the Oregon Health & Science University.
The new survey is part of a much larger network of giving by the Helmsley Trust across the six state area involving hundreds of millions of dollars.
There are others giving involved, too.
A year ago, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, led by Panzirer, gave $1 million to the state Parks and Wildlife Foundation for a new visitor center and theater in Custer State Park.
Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, http://www.capjournal.com
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