Lame-duck Congress could cut funding for critical access hospitals; more than two dozen in Kentucky

Critical access hospitals, which in most states are rural facilities with fewer than 25 beds, may be under attack in the lame-duck session of Congress, former national rural-health director Wayne Myers writes for the Daily Yonder. President Obama’s “budget proposes to revoke CAH status and special payments for any such hospital within 10 miles of another hospital, and to cut the extra 1 percent payment for all of the critical access hospitals,” Myers writes. (Census Bureau map of CAH locations)

This would “have enormous consequences,” Myers writes. “Of the hospitals that lose CAH designation probably most will close or merge with another hospital. I’ve seen no estimates of numbers. There are more than a few congressional budget hawks in both parties who would like to eliminate the special payments to Critical Access Hospitals entirely. If these small hospitals dodge the bullet during the lame duck session, they’ll continue to be targets in the next Congress. If they are successful in reducing payments to CAHs, the net effect will be to move health care capacity and jobs from smaller to larger towns.”

The issue is complex. Rural areas have less political clout than ever, because of declining population, and many rural people use urban hospitals over CAHs, even for ordinary care. “Those who do use CAHs say their experience there is just as good as that in urban hospitals, even if the quality of care isn’t as good as in larger facilities,” Myers writes. “Elderly patients stay at CAHs because they know the nurses and doctors and their families live close by.”

Issues for CAHs arise out of how Medicare payments are made to them, Myers writes. “A long list of arcane, special funding arrangements has accumulated to try to fit small rural hospitals into a Medicare payment system designed for large city hospitals.” The largest program is the “Disproportionate Share Program,” or DISH, which gives $15 billion a year to states to hand out to CAHs. The program is being phased out between 2014 and 2020, along with several other programs, as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. (Read more)

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