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Hospitals are critical to the health of rural communities

Hospitals are critical to the health of rural communities

By Blake Jackson

There is an old proverb that states: “He who has health has hope; and he who has hope has everything.” Our state is rich in all kinds of resources, but the health of Wisconsinites is one of the most important.

We need to do everything possible to safeguard the access to healthcare that our communities already have and work to strengthen that access even further. Especially in a state like Wisconsin, with a sizable share of rural communities and other areas that are underserved, supporting healthcare means supporting the local hospitals and health systems that deliver it.

It’s easy to accidentally take for granted the incredible community assets a local hospital represents. From acute E.R. visits to ongoing, complex care, hospitals and health systems are open, active, and serving patients 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

They offer a wide variety of important medical services patients can’t receive at a small doctor’s office or urgent care clinic. And, while other kinds of medical providers sometimes turn patients away, hospitals treat every patient who comes through their doors — regardless of what ZIP code they come from, their insurance status, or any other factor.

But the same features that make hospitals such crucial contributors also leave them uniquely vulnerable to financial struggles. Because hospitals and health systems provide every patient with the care they need, they are the institutions left in the lurch when Medicare reimburses at rates that are too low, or insurance companies delay reimbursement or deny claims altogether. Since the COVID pandemic, the costs hospitals face in providing care have climbed dramatically, while the entities responsible for reimbursing hospitals have failed to do their part. The result is

significant funding shortfalls. And, when hospitals are forced to cut services or close their doors, it is patients who suffer, losing access to needed care.

Thirty percent of Wisconsinites live in rural areas, where hospitals play an even more outsized role as a primary access point for even routine care. When hospitals are forced to close — as we have recently seen in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls — it leaves patients in the no-win situation of either traveling even farther to get medical care or delaying or skipping care altogether.

According to our state Office of Rural Health, there is only one primary care doctor per approximately 1,480 residents in rural Wisconsin. We need to improve that ratio, not letting it become even worse. But that’s what is happening across the country. Just from 2010 to 2021, more than 130 rural American hospitals had to shut down, and hundreds more are at risk.

Policymakers on both sides of the aisle spend a lot of time talking about ways to strengthen rural communities — and rightly so. They must remember that unless our local hospitals are kept secure and strong, our rural communities cannot be secure or strong either.

Some in Congress are pushing legislative proposals that would make this significant problem even worse. Special interests are lobbying elected officials to incorrectly blame hospitals for rising healthcare costs and cut huge sums of money from Medicare and hospital funding. This would deal an enormous blow to patients in rural Wisconsin and rural counties across the country.

We need our leaders to be looking for ways to strengthen the hospitals and health systems we count on. The last things they should consider are huge new cuts to patient care that would make the hollowing-out of rural healthcare even worse

Photo Credit: gettyimages-richlegg

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Categories: Wisconsin, Rural Lifestyle

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