Oklahoma's rural healthcare is going up in flames, and state leaders won't take the steps necessary to douse the fire.
The Oklahoma Healthcare Authority oversees Medicaid and Sooner Care in the state. It recently announced a 25% Medicaid reimbursement cut effective June 1, citing a $1.3 billion shortfall in the state's budget.
The size of the reduction is unprecedented and will be a death sentence for many rural hospitals, because much of our revenue comes from Medicaid payments. A death sentence for rural hospitals is a death sentence for the people who rely on those hospitals.
Like all businesses, hospitals can't stay open if they continually provide services that cost more than they receive in payment. Businesses that lose money go broke. But unlike other businesses, hospitals can't turn away customers who can't afford our services. We have to treat everybody, including those who can't pay.
This is generous for patients in the short run, but for rural hospitals it's a recipe for financial disaster that will harm patients in the long run.
One example: Four out of 5 hospitals in the state will stop delivering babies after the cuts go into effect. How far are you willing to drive to have your baby?
Tragically, Oklahoma is losing hospitals where we need them most. Sayre, Frederick, and five more rural Oklahoma hospitals are fighting bankruptcy. In all, 42 Oklahoma hospitals are at risk of closing soon.
If rural hospitals close, patients will struggle to get the medical care they desperately need. Or, as Marcia O'Connor, CEO of Choctaw Memorial Hospital in Hugo, recently put it in five powerful words, “People are going to die.”
What can be done to fix the problem?
An increase in the state cigarette tax is one solution. The Oklahoma Hospital Association and the Oklahoma Association of Health Care Providers recently called on state legislators to increase the tax by $1.50 a pack to generate revenue and prevent the collapse of Oklahoma's healthcare system. This is a popular idea, supported by 74% of Oklahomans, according to a recent poll.
Though a cigarette tax will help, we need to do more. The frustrating thing is that help is available from the federal government, but our state legislators don't want it.
The federal government is offering every state matching funds to expand Medicaid, and many states have accepted the money. But not Oklahoma. Our legislators refuse to accept the money that would solve the healthcare funding crisis.
Remember the expression, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”? If you turn your ear toward the state capitol in Oklahoma City, you can hear our legislators having a country music jam session.
I continue to call on Oklahoma's lawmakers to accept the federal funds to expand Medicaid. They need to put the fiddles away and put out the fire before our rural hospitals are nothing but ashes.
Landon Hise is CEO of Cordell (Okla.) Memorial Hospital.