In the northeast corner of California, nearly kissing Nevada and Oregon, lies Surprise Valley. At approximately 70 miles long, the valley is home to 1,232 people, which works out to about two people per square mile. Services are sparse: The Chamber of Commerce website lists two grocery stores, one insurance agency, and one hospital with an emergency room to provide care to its residents.
That hospital, Surprise Valley Community Hospital, is a vital institution, but it is bankrupt. Barbara Feder Ostrov of Kaiser Health News reports that years of mismanagement caught up to the hospital in 2017. By the time state inspectors arrived that June, the hospital was in a state of disarray — crushed by debt, it had only one acute care bed and a chief administrator who was MIA. Residents of Surprise Valley were torn between keeping it open and shuttering it even though the nearest hospital with an emergency room is 25 miles away on the other side of a mountain pass. In the June 5 California election, county voters chose to sell the hospital to an out-of-state entrepreneur rather than risk the hospital’s closure.
Surprise Valley isn’t alone in its lack of access to health care. Since 2010, 83 rural US hospitals have closed, Michael Graff writes in the Guardian. For residents of rural areas, the closure of the local hospital can cut off a lifeline. When Portia Gibbs of Belhaven, North Carolina, had a heart attack in 2014, her husband, Barry, had to choose between driving her 60 miles east to a hospital in Nags Head or 70 miles west to a hospital in the town of Washington. Portia never made it to a hospital.
It’s difficult to attract physicians and hospitals to rural areas, where wages and reimbursement rates tend to be lower. “What happens is if you’re a cardiologist you have a tendency to move to the East Coast where you can get paid more for the same procedure,” said US Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) in a meeting with HHS Secretary Alex Azar, according to Modern Healthcare.
Solving the Rural Hospital Puzzle
There is no easy fix for the decline in the number of rural hospitals, but Moran and other senators have proposed fixing the Medicare wage index. The index, which factors into reimbursement of hospitals serving Medicare patients, is a formula that accounts for geographic differences in wages and the cost of living. Some lawmakers contend that the formula penalizes rural hospitals and exacerbates the hospital shortage. Updating the index to increase payments to Medicare providers in underserved areas could draw more physicians to rural hospitals, which could help prevent hospitals from going under.
Some rural hospitals have tried another solution: joining multihospital systems. In California, where 25% of rural hospitals have closed over the past two decades, 19 rural hospitals have combined forces in systems composed of at least two other hospitals. However, our analysis of six of these hospitals showed mixed results for this strategy: The financial status of one rural hospital improved substantially after joining a system, but two others saw lower net income.
Perhaps a more feasible solution to lack of access to care in rural areas can be found in expanding the health care workforce. A study published in Health Affairsfound a growing presence of nurse practitioners (NPs) among rural practices nationwide. From 2008 to 2016, the number of NPs in rural areas increased 43%. Not surprisingly, “states with restricted scopes of practice had lower NP presence and slower growth.” The authors conclude that “adding nurse practitioners is a useful way for practices to align themselves with contemporary efforts to improve access and performance.”
It seems fitting and bittersweet to end this edition of Essential Coverage with our tribute to the late Herrmann Spetzler, the visionary CEO and the heart of Open Door Community Health Centers in rural Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. To underscore his commitment to providing health care in remote locales, he often described himself in meetings and speeches as “Herrmann Spetzler, RURAL.” Spetzler’s unexpected death in March cut short his life’s work to provide health care to everyone, regardless of income or geography. His passing leaves a huge hole in the community he served.