As cases surge, rural hospital leaders advocate for additional COVID-19 relief
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The surge in coronavirus cases is taking its toll on rural America. Advocates for small hospitals are pushing for another stimulus package to help cover costs they say they could not prepare for.
Coronavirus cases are increasing nationwide, particularly in the Midwest and upper Plains.
On the front lines, rural hospitals are facing some of the same problems they faced this spring: a lack of beds, and a shortage of workers to handle the rising caseload.
“Right now, a number of our hospitals across the country are very, very close if not at maximum capacity,” said Carrie Cochran-McClain, vice president of government affairs and policy at the National Rural Health Association.
More than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S. have come from rural counties throughout the pandemic. More than 200,000 of those cases have come within the last week, a 36 percent jump from the week prior, Cochran-McClain said.
The surge in cases is troubling rural hospitals in many parts of the country. In all, 134 rural hospitals have closed in the last decade; 17 of those just this year, forcing COVID patients to travel farther to receive care.
“Going into COVID, there was kind of a reduction of elective surgeries that a hospital would normally count on to make its margins, to make ends meet,” she said.
This one-two punch of both medical and economic challenges has industry advocates urging congress to pass another comprehensive stimulus package.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle still remain divided on the overall price tag, and what should be included.
“While this election isn’t settled yet, we still have a duty and an obligation to move forward on any type of funding to take care of our constituents,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.).
“There is still some money out there that could be driven out to help,” said Rep. Fred Keller (R-Pa.), referencing the estimated $130 billion remaining in the Paycheck Protection Program from this summer. “That’s why I’ve been saying whatever we do needs to be narrowly focused.”
“COVID-19 didn’t care who was president, it just advances,” said Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii). “If we just leave it to that, it’s going to devastate our country even more.”
Industry leaders say a stimulus package needs to provide more equipment and personal protective equipment for hospital workers. Rural, or critical access, hospitals have 25 beds or less. They often have just one or two ventilators, and most don’t have an intensive care unit.
“We are hopeful there will be an additional COVID relief package,” Cochran-McClain said.