By Representative Charlie Wilson (OH)
Early in the summer, I spent an afternoon at one of two critical access hospitals in my district in Southeastern Ohio. It's a hospital with just 25 beds and an Emergency Department no larger than many families' kitchens. Still, every year the doctors and nurses there care for more than 2,000 inpatients and treat an astonishing 50,000 outpatients.
In addition to the care given at the hospital, the staff travels to nursing homes and other care facilities to administer needed medical tests. This hospital alone is responsible for more than 250,000 lab tests a year. When I spoke to the hospital's CEO he told me the hospital doesn't recover its costs on those tests. "We do them because the patients in the nursing homes need us," he said.
And that's not the only way this hospital and others like it are getting shorted. Most rural healthcare providers receive lower Medicare reimbursement rates. That puts rural providers in a financial bind and makes it difficult for hospitals and doctors to keep their doors open for business.
Rural practices and patients deserve a better partner in the federal government when it comes to the health of rural America. History has shown that communities that don't have a reliable healthcare facility struggle to maintain their livelihood.
Coming to Congress, just one year ago, I pledged to make rural healthcare a top priority. One of the first things I did was to join the Rural Health Care Coalition, a bi-partisan coalition committed to advancing rural priorities in health care policy in Congress. The first action we took this Congress was to introduce the Health Care Access and Rural Equity Act (H-CARE) of 2007 (H.R. 2860). The H-CARE Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation that makes important improvements to help rural healthcare providers address the challenges associated with delivering quality healthcare close to home.
Several provisions within the H-CARE act include; increasing payments to Rural Health Clinics (RHCs), authorizing $20 to $30 million annually for grants to rural providers to help with the cost of implementing health information technology, requiring prompt payment to rural pharmacies by Medicare prescription drug plans and ensuring that rural Americans are appropriately represented on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC).
Rural hospitals deserve the same reimbursement rates that big city hospitals receive for providing the same treatments. Patients at rural hospitals deserve the same level of care patients receive at larger hospitals. The Rural Health Care Coalition is simply asking for a level playing field – the H-CARE Act does just that.