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Georgia Governor Nathan Deal
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Georgia governor acts to bolster faltering rural hospitals


By Andis Robeznieks
Posted: April 30, 2014 - 2:15 pm ET
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Rural hospitals in Georgia will be able to keep their licenses while offering a more limited array of services, thanks to the state's Department of Community Health approval this week of a plan advanced by Gov. Nathan Deal.

The plan came in response to the closure of four rural Georgia hospitals in the last two years, including Lower Oconee Community Hospital, a 25-bed critical-access hospital in Glenwood, which shut its doors in February. According to the Albany (Ga.) Herald, 23% of residents in the hospital's home county are uninsured, 10% are unemployed and 41% of children in the county live in poverty. Georgia did not participate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion program.

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The new rules, unanimously approved at a Tuesday board of community health meeting, allow licensed hospitals or facilities whose licenses have expired within the last 12 months to reduce their scope of services and operate as freestanding emergency departments.

To qualify for this new arrangement, a hospital must be located in a rural county, be no more than 35 miles away from a licensed general hospital, be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and provide non-elective emergency treatment and procedures.

Qualifying hospitals may also provide elective outpatient surgical procedures, basic obstetrics and gynecology services, endoscopies and other elective procedures not performed in an operating room.

Georgia Hospital Association spokesman Kevin Bloye said many rural hospitals in the state are struggling financially and so the GHA supported the new rules.

“If it allows them to continue to serve their communities, we think it's a useful tool and we are appreciative of what the governor has done,” Bloye said, adding that—along with their vital healthcare role—rural hospitals also serve a major economic function in rural areas. “In many cases, they're the top or second-largest employers in their community.”

Rural facilities also will be required to provide, regardless of a patient's ability to pay, a medical exam to determine whether an emergency medical condition exists and to provide stabilizing treatment.

The governor's rural healthcare protection plan also includes the creation of a Rural Hospital Stabilization Committee. Deal announced the members of the new 15-member panel April 25. Along with physicians, state officials and legislators, committee members include Gregory Hearn, CEO, Ty Cobb Healthcare System and Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center, Lavonia; Scott Kroell, CEO/Administrator, Liberty Regional Medical Center, Hinesville; Margaret Gill, president and CEO, Memorial Health Medical Center, Savannah; Ronnie Rollins, president and CEO, Community Health Systems, Macon; and David Sanders, CEO, Fannin Regional Hospital, Blue Ridge.

Earlier this month, Deal signed a bill refining the Georgia Medical Student Scholarship program to facilitate payments of up to $20,000 a year in the form of a “service-repayable scholarship” for graduates who agree to practice in rural or underserved areas.

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks


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