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Rural Hospital CEOs Call for Medicaid Expansion in N.C.

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In this Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018 file photo, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper speaks to the Associated Press during an interview at the Governor's mansion in Raleigh, N.C. In a roundtable discussion with rural hospital executives, Cooper increased pressure on Republican state senators to support legislation that would expand Medicaid coverage to uninsured adults who don't meet current requirements. A similar bill was proposed in 2017, but failed after GOP opposition. Photo: AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File

A group detailed to Gov. Roy Cooper the problems they have keeping their doors open and bills paid.

At a roundtable meeting April 24, CEOs of rural North Carolina hospitals explained to Gov. Roy Cooper and state Health and Human Services Sec. Mandy Cohen that expanding Medicaid would help their institutions keep the doors open.

There were some common elements to all their stories. For starters, all of their hospitals are operating on thin margins.

The group nodded in agreement as each talked about excessive use of their emergency departments and the uncompensated care resulting from ED patients who were uninsured or unable to pay.

Adding to their problems, many said they have a difficult time recruiting medical professionals, and that their counties are turning into “doctor deserts.”

The consensus was that Medicaid expansion wouldn’t solve all their problems overnight, but they agreed it would go a long way to relieving pressure on their emergency departments and create a healthier patient population.

“We can talk about the present, but we really need to talk about where we are going to be in three to five years,” Chris Lumsden, CEO of Northern Hospital of Surry County, told the group. “This issue is monumental to us. [Medicaid expansion] is something we can do today that will impact patient care and economic development down the road.”

In North Carolina, there have been six rural hospital closures since 2010. Across the U.S., there have been 104 closures during that same time, according to data compiled by the UNC Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

Cohen said that 80 percent of the hospital closures nationwide occurred in states that didn’t expand Medicaid.

Big employers

The CEOs’ pleas have some backing from the research. Greg Tung, a health economist from the University of Colorado, found in his research that Medicaid expansion has had a positive impact on hospitals’ financial situations and that they were less likely to close their doors.

Rural hospitals are most at risk for closure in states that did not expand, he said.

“Rural hospitals tend to be in a more financially precarious situation compared to urban hospitals,” Tung told NC Health News.

He said this has a trickle-down effect to the rural economy surrounding each institution.

“Rural hospitals are anchor institutions in their communities. They are kind of a pillar of the local community and the local economy, they provide a lot of skilled, well-paying jobs for that area,” he said. “So when a rural hospital closes, it has a disproportionately large impact on that community, especially in comparison to an urban hospital closure.”

Lumsden said the financial stability of his hospital is vital to the health of the surrounding economy.

Northern Hospital employs 900 people, not including physicians, and it’s one of the largest employers in the area.

“The issue of Medicaid expansion needs to be dealt with quickly,” Lumsden said.

Uncompensated care

Lumsden also brought up the large amount of uncompensated mental health care his emergency department provides. Currently, Northern Hospital averages 50 to 60 involuntary commitments a month.

“They are sequestered in the ER department for sometimes days,” he said. “They are complex, difficult patients. Very tough on staff. And we don’t get paid. We provide at least a million dollars of free care to [involuntary commitment] patients and that just adds to the dynamics.”

Michael Nagowski, CEO of Cape Fear Valley Health System, said he has one of the busiest emergency departments in the state with 140,000 visits a year to one ED. More than 20 percent of Cape Fear’s ED visits are uncompensated.

“We see the things that should be handled in the urgent care or primary care, but they won’t accept those patients,” he said. “If you don’t have a payer source, some people just don’t go until it’s a real emergency. Now we have a cost of care issue at another level.”

“And think about the human impact,” he said. “Let’s catch you before you’re diabetic. Let’s catch you before you have heart disease.”

Cohen echoed Nagowski’s remarks, pointing out that conditions such as high blood pressure are manageable with the right medications.

“What happens when you don’t take your blood pressure medicine is you end up in the emergency room with a stroke,” Cohen said. “And caring for a stroke is not only enormously expensive, but that person is not going back to work, certainly not right away.”

“Now we’ve not only lost a worker for one of our businesses, but someone who is the breadwinner for their family, and now they are in medical bankruptcy,” she said. “And you have uncompensated care.”

Cohen said she often finds herself explaining to people with health insurance how Medicaid expansion will benefit them.

“It’s actually keeping the hospital doors open for them,” Cohen said. “But also keeping prices down for everyone who is lucky enough to get insurance through their employers.”

‘All of it is negotiable’

Nash UNC Health Care CEO Lee Isley said he’s in favor of Medicaid expansion because “it’s the right thing for the community,” but he had a concern.

According to his calculations, closing the coverage gap would bring Nash UNC about $10 million, but under some Medicaid expansion proposals, the state’s hospitals would take on 10 percent the cost in the form of an assessment. For Nash, that would come to about $7.5 million. He added that moving to Medicaid managed care will likely cost his institution about $1.7 million, bringing his hospital right back to breaking even.

Isley told the governor that hospitals should take on part of that assessment, but he asked if it would be possible to share the cost with other health care entities.

Cooper said he was looking into putting some of that cost on insurance companies.

But does Medicaid expansion have a chance in North Carolina?

Cooper said there are enough votes to pass a GOP-backed version of expansion in the state House right now if the Republican leadership would bring it to the floor for a vote.

He expressed less confidence about prospects in the state Senate.

“Obviously the leadership of the Senate has some concerns about this, but we hope that all of it is negotiable,” he said. “It’s so important for us to take this step here in North Carolina.”

Some have expressed fear that the federal money to expand Medicaid might disappear, but Cooper said he doesn’t think it will. People in Washington D.C. have been trying to do away with these policies for the past two years and have not succeeded, he said.

“They couldn’t kill it,” he said. “One, because people need health care. Two, because Republican and Democrat governors in states that have expanded came to Washington and said, ‘This is working. Don’t take this away.’

“Plus you can write safeguards into the legislation that can stop coverage if the federal money dries up,” Cooper said. “But I don’t see this happening. If it didn’t happen in the last two years, it’s certainly not going to happen any time soon in a divided Congress.”

This article was originally published at North Carolina Health News.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.

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In Appalachia, Hospital Closures Can Have a Profound Impact on the Local Economy

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East Ohio Regional Hospital is one of two in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle that are slotted to close this fall. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

Two rural hospitals in Appalachia– one in Wheeling, West Virginia, the other just across the river in Ohio– announced they were closing in mid-August. 

Altogether, the closures will directly impact about 1,100 jobs. But, indirectly, it could affect the entire economy of the area. 

“What we found is when a hospital closed, as you might expect, unemployment increased and that was a major impact initially,” said Mark Holmes, director of the North Carolina rural health research program at the University of North Carolina. Holmes published a study in 2006 that looked at the impact of rural hospital closures on community economic health. 

As far as he knows, it’s the only study to date specifically looking at the economic impact of hospital closures on a community. Yet “losing a rural hospital is the precursor to losing your rural community,” said Alan Morgan, CEO for the National Rural Health Association. The NRHA reports there have been 113 rural hospital closures in the United States since 2010 and more than 700 are at risk of closing. 

“First the direct impact of payroll and jobs lost– that’s a direct impact and one we can measure,” said Morgan. “The second is the indirect impact. All of the services a hospital brings– the construction, the food service, the flower sales– there’s a lot of those indirect drivers too. And then I think what the real issue is: What are the impacts you can’t easily measure? Businesses leaving the community because they don’t have access to that 24-7 emergency room service…And obviously young families moving into the communities. Will they still be moving into the community when they know they don’t have access to healthcare?”

For locals, it was well known that Ohio Valley Medical Center– one of the two facilities that is closing– was struggling. 

“When OVMC indicated that they were thinking about closing their doors, we knew that there were some serious issues in regards to psychiatric care and also access to emergency care,” said West Virginia University president Gordon Gee. “And so we immediately swung into action to see how we could fill that gap.”

Gee said before negotiations were complete, though, WVU was surprised, blindsided even, to hear that OVMC was going ahead with a closure. OVMC is now slated to close its doors on Oct. 7. Gee has publicly criticized the hospital for the abrupt closure — saying it doesn’t give anyone enough time to make a plan for covering those services and jobs. 

WVU already owns Reynolds Hospital right outside Wheeling and had entered into a management agreement with Wheeling Hospital earlier this year. Gee said Wheeling Hospital alone had about 350 job vacancies at the time of OVMC’s closure and will be able to absorb some of the jobs lost from the other two facilities. 

Additionally, WVU plans to open two new instant care centers– one in downtown Wheeling and one outside of the city that should absorb some of the day-to-day health care needs of residents.

“The job loss will not be nearly as impactful as I think people are anticipating,” said Gee. “And obviously on the healthcare side in order to meet that population need, we are going to have to hire more people at Wheeling Hospital and at Reynolds, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.” 

To date, the two facilities have hired about 100 people, and WVU reports another 100 are in the pipeline. 

Because of the combination of those factors, the prospects for Wheeling’s economy may not be as bad as they would have been otherwise. 

“In counties that had an additional hospital, they could recover in a couple years,” said UNC researcher Holmes. “You took about two to three  years for recovery, and they sort of kept going on their trajectory. But for those who lost their only hospital in their community, there was a long-run permanent effect on their community.”

That’s not to say there won’t be a transition period. Or that there aren’t concerns. 

“Going forward, the needs still remain,” said Wheeling mayor Greg Elliott. “From the city’s perspective there are three main needs,” citing healthcare, jobs and the value of real estate in the area.  

In this particular case, Holmes’ data suggests Wheeling may survive the threat of losing its two hospitals, thanks to the intervention of WVU. The lesson of the threat remains, however: When a rural hospital closes, not only does the town lose its medical provider, the ripple effects can rip apart the community’s economy. In short, if the other 700 or so rural hospitals at risk of closure in the United States do close in coming years, rural America has a rough road ahead. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.

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How Do You Fight High Rates of Cervical Cancer in Appalachia? Researchers Say By Showing Up, Building Trust

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Photo: Daan Stevens/Unsplash

It’s an enduring fact: You’re more likely to die from cancer if you live in rural Appalachia than if you live anywhere else in this country.

According to a 2016 University of Virginia study, between 1969 and 2011, the incidence of cancer declined in all regions of the U.S except rural Appalachia. And while the rate of people who died from cancer declined throughout the country, in Appalachia disparities persisted. Rural Appalachia has the highest cancer mortality rate; urban non‐Appalachia, the lowest. 

Saving lives that would be lost to cancer requires multidimensional strategies. A recently announced $11 million National Cancer Institute grant is facilitating one such effort. A team of researchers from four universities – Ohio State University, West Virginia University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Virginia – is poised to address a form of cancer that’s disproportionately high in rural Appalachia and one that’s entirely preventable: cervical cancer. 

The researchers will be collaborating with 10 health-care systems serving at-risk communities throughout Appalachian Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

“This region has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer and cervical cancer deaths in the United States,” lead investigator Electra Paskett, a professor in Ohio State’s colleges of Medicine and Public Health, said in a press release announcing the grant. “We know that smoking tobacco products, HPV infection and lack of timely cervical cancer screening play a significant role in these exceptionally high rates.”

The project will comprise three initiatives to be implemented through clinics and health centers in the region. They include at-home HPV screening, interventions to improve HPV vaccination rates among young people, and smoking-cessation counseling and nicotine-replacement therapy. 

Barriers to Care

“Cervical cancer is 100 percent preventable,” said Stephenie Kennedy-Rea, the West Virginia University Cancer Institute’s associate director for Cancer Control and Prevention and a recipient of the NCI grant. “We have a test that identifies pre-cancerous cells and we have a preventive vaccine. There’s no reason we should have people being diagnosed with late-stage cervical cancer.” 

Karen Winkfield, director of the Office of Cancer Health Equity at Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, agrees: “Cervical cancer is one of the cancers that we have done an amazing job at preventing.”

But rural Appalachians are being screened and vaccinated at lower rates than other parts of the country. Access to care is a primary reason.

According to a 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology “State of Cancer Care in America” report, half of all hematologists and oncologists practice in just eight states, all with high percentages of urban residents: California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio and Illinois.

“In places like Appalachia, we just don’t have that many providers who can care for individuals close to home,” said Winkfield, who recently served as chair of ASCO’s Health Disparities Committee. Access to transportation is often an issue; the cost of travel is another.

Education – unawareness of the care you need and the care that’s available – also plays a role, Kennedy-Rea said. 

The prevalence of smokers is another factor. Data for 2017 indicates that West Virginia has the highest adult smoking rate in the country, 26 percent, up a percentage point from the previous year, with Kentucky close behind, at 24.6 percent. 

“It’s hard to point to any one factor,” Kennedy-Rea said. “It’s often a combination.”

In many rural Appalachian communities, a strong tradition of individualism and a reluctance to admit to illness prevail, as do deeply ceded religious beliefs, a conviction that God will heal, or that cancer is God’s will and there’s nothing to be done about it. 

Winkfield acknowledges that traditions and beliefs are sometimes factors, but believes that it’s generally more complicated – that when such considerations do come into play, they’re often intertwined with the inherent challenges, the socioeconomic barriers.

“It’s almost putting blinders on, in some ways, because of the challenges. It’s more about, ‘What can I do about it?’” she said. “If you go and you get screened for a cancer and you’re diagnosed with cancer, then what?” 

‘Asking to Be Vaccinated’

Partnerships between academia and community-based health organizations, such as the one the NCI grant is now facilitating, are working to not only respond to that “then what?” but also at precluding the need for the inquiry.

The objectives of this multilevel initiative, Kennedy-Rea said, are to increase cervical cancer screening rates in at-risk communities, elevate HPV vaccination rates and decrease the rate of smoking.

“We’ve seen the ability of clinics to increase their screening numbers and the very positive outcomes from that,” she said. “And they’re able to sustain it.” 

The theory behind implementation science is that you reinforce systems that are already in place, helping them maintain sustainability of the desired interventions. 

Kennedy-Rea said that her office, Cancer Prevention and Control, has traditionally focused primarily on an individual’s behavior. They’re now moving more toward multi-level initiatives, whereby, while continuing to help that individual overcome barriers, they’re taking this systems approach.

“If I send a staff member to southern West Virginia to work for a day and identify people in need of screening, and navigate these folks to screening, we may successfully get 20 to 30 people into screening,” Kennedy-Rea said. 

“If we spend the same amount of time working with a health system, identifying patients within their system who are in need of screening and help them build interventions into their workflow, over the same amount of time we may be able to identify 6,000 people and impact the ability of that clinic to screen those 6,000 people.”

Among the initiatives funded in Appalachia through the grant will be helping parents understand the importance of the HPV vaccine. Kennedy-Rea believes that when the vaccine was introduced, it was understood as a means of reducing sexually transmitted diseases but not as a cancer-prevention measure.

“And I think in Appalachia, that may have hurt the uptake,” she said. “As we help people understand that this is a cancer-prevention vaccine, parents are more willing to have their children vaccinated. I also think that kids are asking to be vaccinated when they have all the information.” 

Long-term Commitment

Winkfield is bullish on such academia/community-based partnerships, most particularly when they’re undertaken in communities where there are only a half dozen or so primary care providers, as is often the case in rural Appalachia.

“If we can provide the support,” she said, “help lift those providers and provide them the resources they need so that it’s not an extra burden for them to do these things – that’s where those partnerships are really, truly invaluable.”

But, she cautions, “It’s a process; it takes a while.” The medical community, Winkfield avowed, is starting to better appreciate the importance of “taking time to understand the culture of the community and understand where people are so that we can meet them where they are.”

This is especially true, she said, in Appalachian communities that are “really tight knit. There’s a trust factor; people have to know that you’re there to stay, that you’re not going anywhere … You can’t pop in and out; you can’t do that type of helicopter research and expect to make a big difference.”

She points to the University of Kentucky and other universities throughout Appalachia as exemplars of long-term commitment. 

Kennedy-Rae and her colleagues anticipate arriving in the communities in the fall, conducting focus groups, gathering baseline data and laying foundations, with implementation launching next spring.

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VA Expands Coverage for Veterans Through Urgent Care Clinics

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A U.S. veteran attends the 63rd Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, June 6, 2007. Photo: Dept. of Defense/ Cherie A. Thurlby

About 40 percent of veterans who receive medical care through the Veterans Health Administration are now covered at urgent care clinics. This expansion of benefits for veterans is part of the Mission Act, which went into effect last month. 

Veterans with a service-connected disability used to have to pay out of pocket if they went to an urgent care facility. Now, if veterans have been waiting for care for a long time, or if they live far from a VA hospital, they can receive care through private doctors in their local community. 

James McCormick is a veteran in West Virginia, and he’s recently been named the National Junior Vice Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. He said the new expansion of benefits could have an especially big impact for veterans in the Mountain State. 

“In an area that’s rural, where the distance to a VA is often 100 miles or more, this is actually a really good thing,” McCormick said.

But he said, not many veterans he’s spoken to are aware that they can now use their VA benefits to go to urgent cares.

“It needs to be better communicated. Not all of them know about it. Very few in the mainstream know about it.”

According to a press release from the Beckley VA Medical Center, the new urgent care benefit is meant to give veterans “a convenient way to get treatment for minor injuries and illnesses such as colds, strep throat and pink eye.”

McCormick said that while this new benefit is very helpful, he hopes it doesn’t lead to a funding reduction, or loss of resources for the VA health system.

“We definitely don’t want that to distract or take away from the support or the funding of the existing medical system that we have in place. It’s very important to us as veterans that we have that,” McCormick said.

He said that overall, he’s been happy with the care he’s received through the VA. He suffers from chronic pain, a result of multiple gunshot wounds he received while in Iraq, and when he decided to get away from taking opioids, he was able to treat his pain with a specialized alternative type of pain management therapy at the VA in Huntington.

These types of innovative, alternative therapies are what he hopes the VA will continue to put resources into in the future, as well as increased access to local care, so veterans aren’t having to wait to receive medical care.

“So that’s why I was real excited to see this, you know, giving them access to an urgent care system, a local doctor, someone that they could go to and get assistance right away, I think that’s a good step in the right direction, but we still have a few more steps we have to take.”

Although the VA Mission Act passed through Congress with bipartisan support, some Democratic lawmakers say they hope it won’t set a precedent for more privatization of the VA medical system.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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