HHS awarded more than $30 million in grants to states in an effort to strengthen rural hospitals. Most of the money, $22.6 million, is being given to states to help interested facilities become critical-access hospitals. Such hospitals have 25 or fewer beds and must meet certain criteria, including providing emergency services and nursing services 24 hours a day. They do not need to meet all staffing and service requirements for a full-service hospital, however. In return they receive special Medicare funding, including cost-based reimbursement.
Another $7.2 million is going to state rural health offices to provide technical assistance to rural communities, coordinate health services in those communities and retain healthcare providers.
The remaining money has been earmarked for the Nassau County Health Department, Fernandina Beach, Fla., and Island Health Plan, West Tisbury, Mass., to find ways to improve healthcare delivery in rural areas.
While hospitals nationwide say they are struggling with insufficient reimbursements, rural facilities are facing especially difficult times, a point not lost on Washington legislators. Included in both the Senate and House Medicare reform bills are provisions to provide relief to rural hospitals.
In the meantime, getting certified as a critical-access hospital has been "a life-or-death thing for several hundred hospitals," said Wayne Myers, president of the National Rural Health Association, based in Kansas City, Mo. Myers estimated there are about 700 critical-access hospitals across the country, with several hundred more that qualify for the designation.
Tracy (Minn.) Area Medical Services received certification in April 2000. Being a critical-access facility has allowed the 15-bed hospital to do necessary upgrades to its patient call and telephone systems, said Stacy Barstad, the hospital's chief financial officer.
"It's very important to our hospital for the revitalization of our facilities," she said.