Saving America's rural hospitals
April 2, 2020
These are extraordinarily challenging times for the nation’s hospitals and health care workers.
In just a couple of months, the coronavirus has swept around the globe and across the country, disrupting and destroying countless lives and wreaking havoc on the nation’s health-care system.
I have spent most of my professional life working in health care in Wyoming: as an orthopedic surgeon at the Wyoming Medical Center, as medical director of the Wyoming Health Fairs and as president of the Wyoming Medical Society. In fact, people here at home know me as a doctor first and as their senator second.
Over the past week, I have spoken with the heads of Wyoming hospitals about the unprecedented financial challenges they are facing. What they report is hardly a surprise; it simply confirms that this is a dire situation demanding swift, bold action.
That is why on Monday I led a bipartisan group of Senate and House members in urgently requesting that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar provide immediate financial relief for rural hospitals in Wyoming and across the country. More than 120 members of Congress, including Wyoming’s entire congressional delegation, signed this critical appeal.
All of these members were eager to sign regardless of party because supporting rural hospitals has never been and never will be a partisan issue. Party affiliation makes no difference whatsoever when a hospital must shut its doors in rural America. Protecting this lifeline for patients transcends Washington politics.
Rural hospitals are the backbone of thousands of communities, caring for 60 million Americans nationwide. The National Rural Health Association, a leading voice for rural health-care providers, is backing our bipartisan, bicameral effort.
In March, Congress passed several coronavirus-related public health and economic-rescue measures, most recently the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act – the largest relief package in American history. This massive emergency-funding bill, signed into law on March 27, includes $100 billion to help the nation’s hospitals.
Still, we cannot afford to overlook rural hospitals. Local providers are on the frontlines in Wyoming and across the country. Operating on tight margins, they faced financial challenges long before the outbreak. Now many have stopped performing elective surgeries and other routine care, compounding their economic problem.
Make no mistake: stopping elective procedures and non-emergency care is the right thing to do to help fight the coronavirus. Hospitals and health-care workers need to focus their efforts on stopping COVID-19 and conserving the personal protective equipment, or PPE, needed for treating patients with the virus.
As a doctor, I know these decisions have a real impact on the finances of hospitals and health-care providers. I am proud that so many hospitals are putting the emergency needs of their patients ahead of monetary concerns.
It is the duty of the federal government to ensure that rural health care workers get the help they need right now. We cannot afford to overlook hospitals that are doing the right thing for their patients and their communities while hurting their own finances in the process.
As we note in our joint letter to Secretary Azar: “We are hearing from rural hospitals across the country that have only days left of cash-on-hand – money needed for payroll and supplies.”
Simply put, we cannot stand by and watch rural hospitals become collateral damage in the coronavirus war. Serving on the frontlines, America’s small community providers desperately need added support to survive this existential threat.
So it’s time to send a message to rural hospitals and health care workers in Wyoming and across the country that Congress is listening and Congress is acting. It’s time to make these small-town heroes a priority as we work together to defeat the coronavirus.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, is an orthopedic surgeon and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.