Guest Column

Protecting rural hospitals must be a priority

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Now that congress has an opportunity to repeal and replace the antithetically named Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), it is critically important that lawmakers understand what provisions from that failed law need immediate attention.

For Coloradans, especially in rural parts of the state, protecting rural and community hospitals that are struggling to carry Medicare patients is a top concern. The issue has to do with how Obamacare reduced federal reimbursements to hospitals that treat Medicare patients, reductions that are threatening medical care to millions of seniors and disabled Coloradans.

Among Obamacare's biggest problems was the cost. To pay for it, Obamacare enacted numerous tax increases. But since you can only tax people so much, the balance had to come from somewhere else - that somewhere else came in the form of reducing Medicare payments to hospitals. In fact, hospital payment cuts were the single largest funding source for Obamacare's costly expansions.

These cuts came at a cost, with several smaller community and rural hospitals around the nation having to either close their doors or drastically reduce services. Now, with Obamacare on the chopping block, these cuts need to be repealed as well.

Restoration of this funding is critical to helping rural hospitals continue to care for uninsured, low-income, disabled and elderly citizens. As it stands, current Medicare payments cover less than 90 percent of the cost of care. This is unsustainable, especially for rural hospitals which do not have the resources or patient caseload to make up that difference.

The bottom line is that if the federal government does not restore the Medicare reimbursement payments, rural hospitals will be faced with either cutting back critical services or closing their doors. The impact that this would have on these communities cannot be overstated.

Rural hospitals are often the sole provider of many crucial medical services, including emergency care for entire rural regions. Having to transport patients to urban facilities risks lives, increases costs and takes emergency medical technicians miles out of their jurisdictions.

Moreover, hospitals serve as an economic hub for many rural communities, providing jobs and contributing to the local economy. Shutting the doors of these facilities is not any different than a local mine, factory or some other vital local industry closing down.

Without a swift repeal of these Medicare cuts, Colorado hospitals stand to lose more than $3.2 billion over the next year. These are dollars that will be siphoned mostly from rural hospitals.

I was proud to stand in the Legislature and speak in favor of a resolution recognizing the importance of Colorado's rural hospitals. Congress should follow our lead and work to protect rural hospitals by repealing the failed, expensive mess that is Obamacare - and simultaneously repealing the Medicare payment cuts that its crafters had hoped would pay for it.

State Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Roxborough Park, represents House District 39, which includes Larkspur, Franktown, Roxborough Park and Teller County.

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