Senate health bill a ‘death sentence’ for rural hospitals

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The Senate’s Better Care Reconciliation Act could cost rural hospitals $1.3 billion in lost revenue.

The Senate’s healthcare bill, if passed, could spell doom for some cash-strapped rural hospitals, many of which are already vulnerable to closure, experts say.

Much of the concern is centered on cuts to Medicaid in the bill—a proposal that is also worrying to large hospitals and health systems—which could leave millions more uninsured and significantly increase uncompensated care costs.

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"These hospitals are hanging on by their fingernails," Maggie Elehwany, vice president of government affairs for the National Rural Health Association, told CNN. "If you leave this legislation as is, it's a death sentence for individuals in rural America."

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The cuts wouldn’t only hurt patients, according to a new report. Some of the bill’s proposals could also lead to thousands of rural healthcare workers losing their jobs. The Chartis Center for Rural Health, a part of strategic planning firm The Chartis Group, estimated that the BCRA, if passed as is, could cause 34,000 rural healthcare jobs to be eliminated.

Under the Senate’s bill, the cuts could cost rural hospitals $1.3 billion in lost revenue. Much of this would be felt in reduced Medicaid payments; expansion states, this would be about $442,000 lost each year per facility, while it would equal about $224,000 in lost revenue. It would likely push nearly 150 more rural facilities into the red, according to the analysis.

One such vulnerable facility is Lincoln Community Hospital, the small, regional hospital in Hugo, Colorado. The 50-bed hospital serves the the town of about 825, according to an article from National Public Radio, with many of its patients on either Medicare or Medicaid.

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The funding cuts proposed in the Better Care Reconciliation Act have given leaders at Lincoln pause, and if the hospital were to close it would leave local residents in a “medical desert,” as it’s more than 100 miles to the next nearest hospital.

The facility was nearly shut down several decades ago, and former board member Ted Lyons said that, though the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, he hopes that members of Congress work to protect rural hospitals if they intend to move forward with a repeal.

“You don’t drown the duck to get the feather out of him,” Lyons told NPR.

Rural healthcare leaders in Pennsylvania expressed similar concerns. Washington Health System operates two hospitals, one with 260 beds and one with 49 beds, in the western part of the state. CEO Gary Weinstein told WESA that if its smaller Waynesburg hospital closed, patients would have to travel at least 30 minutes for care.

The Waynesburg facility is located in Greene County, which is ranked 60th out of 67 Pennsylvania counties in per capita income, so many of its patients are Medicaid recipients. If a patient without insurance comes into the hospital, it recoups just 5% of its costs, Weinstein said.

“We don’t make money when somebody is insured by Medicaid, but at least we get something,” Weinstein said. “But when somebody has no insurance at all, a lot of times they just aren’t able to pay any part of the bill.”

Weinstein said he has spoken to Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, one of the 13 senators involved in crafting the Senate’s bill, about that possibility, asking him to make additional changes to the legislation.