To Get Fed Funding, Rural Hospitals Must Agree to Transfer In-Patients to Bigger Hospitals that Do Not Want the Transfers

(p. A1) CASCADE, Idaho — It was 3 a.m. at the 10-bed hospital near the River of No Return, and by every measure, Ella Wenrich should have been dead.

Gastrointestinal bleeding had sent her hemoglobin level — typically above 12 — down to 3.3, and she needed an enormous blood transfusion at a larger medical center. But amid a surge in Covid cases, every major facility within 400 miles refused to take her. The smallest hospital in Idaho was, once again, on its own.

. . .

For 46 million Americans, rural hospitals are a lifeline, yet an increasing number of them are closing. The federal government is trying to resuscitate them with a new program that offers a huge infusion of cash to ease their financial strain. But it comes with a bewildering condition: They must end all inpatient care.

The program, which invites more than 1,700 small institutions to become federally designated “rural emergency hospitals,” would inject monthly payments amounting to more than $3 million a year into each of their budgets, a game-changing total for many that would not only keep them open (p. A16) but allow them to expand services and staff. In return, they must commit to discharging or transferring their patients to bigger hospitals within 24 hours.

The government’s reasoning is simple: Many rural hospitals can no longer afford to offer inpatient care. A rural closure is often preceded by a decline in volume, according to a congressional report, and empty beds can drain the hospital’s ability to provide outpatient services that the community needs.

But the new opportunity is presenting many institutions with an excruciating choice.

“On one hand, you have a massive incentive, a ‘Wow!’ kind of deal that feels impossible to turn down,” said Harold Miller, the president of the nonprofit Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform. “But it’s based on this longstanding myth that they’ve been forced to deliver inpatient services — not that their communities need those services to survive.”

Some rural health care providers and health policy analysts say the officials behind the rule are out of touch with the difficulties of transferring rural patients. Bigger hospitals — bogged down with Covid surges, pediatric R.S.V. patients and their own financial woes — are increasingly unwilling to accept transferred patients, particularly from small field hospitals unaffiliated with their own systems.

There are also blizzards, downed cattle fences and mountain pass roads that close for months at a time.

. . .

Cascade Medical Center, where Ms. Wenrich was treated, seems like exactly the type of hospital that federal officials had in mind.

This former lumber mill community is home to less than a thousand people, but the hospital serves patients from across 2,800 square miles; patients travel up to eight hours round trip from homes without addresses.

For the full story, see:

Emily Baumgaertner and Michael Hanson. “Hospital Funding Has Catch: Cut Inpatient Care.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 10, 2022): A1 & A18-A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Dec. 13, 2022, and has the title “A Rural Hospital’s Excruciating Choice: $3.2 Million a Year or Inpatient Care?”)

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