It’s an all too familiar sight — plastic walls and other makeshift areas, created on the fly in hospitals across the country as they care for patients with COVID-19.
“Where you live shouldn't determine if you live. I serve an older, poorer, sicker population. When you look at any of the statistics coming out of CDC, rural populations tend to have higher mortality rates, they tend to have a lower life expectancy, and they tend to have a higher frequency of chronic diseases,” Kevin Stansbury, CEO at Lincoln Health, said. He said hospitals have not only been hit hard with the virus, but the financial impacts as well.
“I’m a rural hospital CEO, and any rural hospital CEO is nervous about keeping their doors open. That’s just our reality,” Stansbury said.
Seventeen rural hospitals across the U.S. closed in the first three quarters of 2020, according to stats from the American Hospital Association.
“Our estimate done by the Chartis Center for Rural Health has 453 rural hospitals vulnerable to closure. The vast majority of those being in the southeast,” Carrie Cochran-McClain, VP for government affairs and policy at the National Rural Health Association, said. “About 70% to 75% of rural hospitals revenue comes from outpatient services on average, so if you look at having to suspend that revenue source for two to four, and up to six months, that alone can have a big impact on facilities.”
Luckily, rural areas have received some help through the CARES Act last year and now money on the way through the newest stimulus bill.
“We don't know yet the parameters around what that funding will look like,” Cochran-McClain said. “There have been a lot of bills with a lot in them, so I think trying to track all of that is a lot for any provider who is working day to day.”
It’s not easy to figure out.
“We’re really trying to understand exactly what the opportunities are within the new stimulus bill,” Jodi Schmidt, executive director of the University of Kansas Health System Care Collaborative, said. “Here in Kansas we are second, only to Texas, in terms of the number of rural hospitals that are at financial risk.”
“I’ve not seen any clear guidance yet on what that takes to qualify for that money. We’re certainly going to try to qualify for it if we do,” Stansbury said.
As rural hospitals wait for more guidance on if and how to get additional funding, many are working to keep spikes in COVID-19 from happening again. For Lincoln Health, that looks like telehealth visits, reminding people to social distance and getting those in the community vaccinated.
Stansbury said they’re reaching about 55% immune in the community — a combination of those fully vaccinated and those who have the disease and recovered.
“We’ve seen a real drop," he said. "It's really gratifying to see the community come together."