(The Center Square) – As COVID-19 cases continue to climb, the lack of access to health care in rural areas could become more of an issue.
Georgia lawmakers hope that $5 million added to the amended fiscal 2020 budget will help maintain the rural health-care system through the pandemic and beyond.
“Our rural hospitals are the backbone of that network even though we do not always think about them that way,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn, said. “These funds and the strike team will help stabilize those facilities in an immediate and long term fashion.”
Rural communities usually have a population that is at higher risk for COVID-19.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average rural American is 73.3 years old. Elderly patients and those with other medical complications can develop more severe symptoms from COVID-19, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.
With COVID-19 cases increasing each day, there is a common fear among states that hospitals could become overburdened.
While there are 924,107 staffed hospital beds in the U.S., the American Hospital Association estimates 960,000 Americans could need beds with ventilators during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Yet, rural hospitals, which make up half of the hospitals in the U.S., face staff shortages, aging facilities and a lack of resources.
According to a recent legislative report, most rural residents also have to drive at least 50 miles to get to the nearest hospital.
Many residents are underinsured or uninsured, according to the Georgia Hospital Association, which puts a financial strain on the facilities. The CDC reports rural Americans tend to be more unhealthy than their urban counterparts because of frequent cigarette use, high blood pressure and obesity.
Georgia budget conferees added the $5 million to the Rural Hospitalization Stabilization Grants program for a Department of Community Health study and to finance hospitals based on the number of beds. The amended budget also restored $2.1 million for a medical training partnership with Mercer School of Medicine and Morehouse School of Medicine.
Mercer is home to the Rural Health Systems Innovation Center, a research organization that focuses on rural health improvements.
The amended budget includes $500,000 for a loan repayment program used to attract medical professionals to rural hospitals and health facilities.
In 2017, the state launched the Rural Hospital Tax Credit, which offers an incentive to taxpayers for donating to rural hospitals. However, a recent audit by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts found the neediest hospitals were iced out of the program. The Internal Revenue Service last August also removed the Rural Hospital Tax Credit as an eligible charitable deduction on federal taxes. Eligible donations have decreased by 50 percent since then.
On Tuesday, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced it would be expanding telehealth services for patients. The remote service allows doctors to consult patients through electronic devices and eliminates the need for travel.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services currently has five rural health grants programs, which focus on research, provider recruitment and telehealth services.