Rural hospitals need the federal government

Every week caregivers at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital are told by patients how they rely on our hospital for quality care close to home. Our patients see us as an ally in their path to well-being. With an aging, Medicare-dependent population and higher rates of chronic problems such as diabetes, heart problems and cancer, there is truly a fight for good health taking place in rural America. Caregivers at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital and I are proud to be allies in that fight, but we need the federal government to be our ally as well. Healthcare in rural America depends on the federal government as a reliable business partner. 

Lately, that hasn’t been the case. While being asked to implement a wide variety of reforms, rural hospitals confront  a toxic mix of outdated laws, increased expenses from mandated regulations and programs, higher labor costs due to the challenges of attracting health care professionals to rural areas,  and a Congress that repeatedly raids federal funding for hospital care to pay for other programs. With more than 50 percent of rural hospital revenues coming from government sources, it is vital for the government to be a better ally in our fight for good health.

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Luckily, there a few champions for rural health in Congress who recognize the crisis rural hospitals face in delivering health care to their communities. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced The Craig Thomas Rural Hospital and Provider Equity Act, which would provide crucial support and relief to rural hospitals. Our hospital stands with the American Hospital Association in supporting this legislation that would extend critical rural provisions that have expired or are set to expire and implement new provisions that would benefit rural hospitals. The senators sponsoring this legislation honorably aim to correct misguided policies implemented or overlooked by the government. Rural America needs more allies like these senators in our fight for good health; passing this legislation would be a step in the right direction. 

In Vermont, hospitals work with other community providers to ensure patients get the care they need.  Together, we have implemented a pilot project to co-manage the care of cancer patients in our region, with oncology specialists and primary medical home clinicians and our board-certified palliative care physicians working as a team to provide the best possible care.  We are about to embark on a demonstration project to co-manage the care of patients living in our region who qualify for Medicare and Medicaid.  And we are redefining how health services are delivered.  If it were not for the leadership policies recommended in the legislation, our ability to care for patients would not only be diminished, but in many cases, eliminated. 

According to the U.S. census, nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population resides in rural areas. Rural hospitals see a higher percentage of inpatients aged 65 and older compared with their urban hospital counterparts. These citizens count on their community hospitals to provide health care services and add jobs to their local communities. Through partnership with the federal government, rural communities and their health care providers can continue to tackle the chronic problems facing patients across the country.

Bengtson is CEO of Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital and chairman of the AHA Section for Small or Rural Hospitals.