As COVID-19 vaccination rates in rural communities lag behind their urban counterparts, rural healthcare resources are becoming increasingly exhausted by COVID-19-related morbidity and mortality. Rural hospitals serve exceedingly important roles during the pandemic. They act as agents for the provision of vital healthcare resources to rural neighbors and families who would otherwise be forced to travel extensive distances to receive essential emergency and primary health services. Unfortunately, rural hospitals are some of the most financially vulnerable of all healthcare institutions. Since 2010, seven rural hospitals have closed in North Carolina alone, and several more yet face endangerment. As a student registered nurse anesthetist, I have provided anesthesia in a variety of rural hospitals in North Carolina, some of which are in danger of closing. The patients and family members I have cared for and encountered within these communities depend on these hospitals for their well-being.
The Rural Hospital Closure Relief Act of 2021 (H.R.1639/S.644), which would effectively allocate federal funding to rural hospitals, has been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate. This bipartisan bill would broaden the inclusion criteria for small hospitals in rural areas seeking to achieve Critical Access Hospital status and subsequently receive cost-based reimbursement from Medicare and, in some states, including North Carolina, Medicaid.
In addition to COVID-19 rates, rural Americans experience a multitude of health disparities and face greater risks for negative health outcomes compared to their urban counterparts. Rural Americans are more likely to suffer from cancer, heart disease, stroke, and accidental traumatic injuries according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thus, it comes as no surprise that rural hospital closures increase mortality rates. Additionally, from an economic standpoint, when rural hospitals close, residents of the community lose access to jobs. As a result, other local businesses that rely on the consumer support of community members are also forced to close. For the physical and economic health of our rural communities, I urge readers to support The Rural Hospital Closure Relief Act of 2021.
In the end, we must do everything in our power to support the financial health of the small hospitals that our rural communities rely on, as preventing their closure upholds the interests of all North Carolinians.
Wesley Maughon is a registered nurse of 6 years and a current student registered nurse anesthetist in WCU’s DNP nurse anesthesia program. He is not employed or reimbursed by the Western Carolinian for this op-ed. His opinions are not direct representations of the Western Carolinian or WCU.