Terri Sewell introduces bipartisan bill to save rural hospitals

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Alabama Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell joined Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy of Nevada Friday in introducing H.R. 5133: the Rural Hospital Enhancement and Long-Term Health (HEALTH) Act of 2016.

The Rural HEALTH Acts a bipartisan effort aimed at supporting existing rural hospitals through State Offices of Rural Health (SORH) and incentivize construction of new facilities for communities in need. It also requires the federal Department of Health and Human Services to report annually on the state of America’s rural health systems, something that hasn’t been done since 2003. This report must examine the number of hospital closures and their causes.

“The growing fragility of rural hospitals, combined with inaccessibility issues and grave health disparities, threatens the economic viability of the most underserved communities in our country,” said Sewell. “The Alabama State Office of Rural Health (ASORH) provides critical State and Federal resources to develop long-term solutions for residents of our most rural and vulnerable communities.”

Sewell continued, “ASORH’s recent collaboration with the Veterans Affairs to provide mental health care to rural Veterans through telehealth is just one example of how our state organization is an outstanding steward of the federal funding provided through the State Offices of Rural Health Program. As more rural hospitals are being forced to shut their doors, and rural health services are being cut, it is my hope Congress will respond by making the revitalization of America’s rural health care infrastructure a top priority and pass the Rural HEALTH Act.”

For Sewell’s co-sponsor Rep. Hardy, the bills hits especially close to home as the only hospital in Tonopah, NV, in his District, closed August leaving area residents hours away from emergency medical facilities.

“More than 30 percent of America’s rural hospitals are vulnerable to conditions that have caused the closure of 71 facilities since 2010,” said Hardy. “We have to act now to prevent more families from losing their literal lifelines in times of emergency. The Rural HEALTH Act will help us save rural America’s hospitals.”

The bill has the support of the Alabama Department of Public Health, the Alabama Rural Health Association, and the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH), and the American Osteopathic Association.

Sewell’s press announcement included statements of their support.

“This legislation is extremely important as it will enable the continuation of the vital services provided by the Alabama State Office of Rural Health (ASORH),” said Dr. Thomas M. Miller, Alabama State Health Officer. “Overall, the services provided by the ASORH have had a very positive impact on the health care and quality of life of Alabama’s 1.6 million rural residents.”

In a letter of support, Dale E. Quinney, Executive Director of the Alabama Rural Health Association said, “The Alabama Rural Health Association strongly supports this legislation that, among other things, will increase sorely needed funding for our State Offices of Rural Health … Past experiences of the State Office of Rural Health Program provide ample evidence that this will be a wise investment that will produce benefits far exceeding the investment.”

Teryl Eisinger, Executive Director National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (NOSORH) said, “Rural health care systems throughout the country continue to operate in a fragile state. By reauthorizing the State Office of Rural Health grant program, this bipartisan legislation will help provide improved access to quality health care for the 61 million Americans living in rural areas. NOSORH now calls on the leadership of both parties in the House of Representatives to pass this measure at the earliest opportunity.”

Dr. John W. Becher, President of the American Osteopathic Association also weighed in. “Rural hospitals are a critical part of the health care infrastructure, and the closure of these facilities can have a significant negative impact on rural patients’ access to care, as well as a physician’s ability to practice effectively within their community. Your legislation seeks to both protect and strengthen rural hospitals by expanding grant opportunities available to them. These grants will help foster both public and private investment in rural hospitals to promote greater stability for these facilities, and will also support efforts to recruit and retain health care professionals to serve in rural areas. This bill also recognizes the need for proper congressional oversight by ensuring that both Congress and the states are informed by the most recent overview of the state of our nation’s rural health care system.”

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