Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal announced a nearly $100,000 federal health services grant for rural health networking development in Great Barrington today.
Neal says the money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Rural Health Network Development Planning Grant Program comes at a crucial time.
Since 2010, officials say 80 rural hospitals have closed their doors across the country, and an additional 363 are almost at their breaking point.
“It’s a big employer – the healthcare industry in Massachusetts – in addition to which people come from all over the world to Massachusetts because of the superior quality of our doctors and nurses and healthcare professionals,” Neal says. “It is industry in Massachusetts as well as first class healthcare.”
The Democrat says the grant program will assist in the development of an integrated healthcare network – vital to rural communities.
Doreen Hutchinson, Fairview Hospital’s vice president of operations, says the grant will expand access to and improve the quality of services, which will in turn strengthen the rural health care system.
“Access to population health is often an overlooked aspect of the right to health and without practical access the right to health is sometimes just an empty promise that we give to people,” Hutchinson says.
She says the barriers in southern Berkshire County include limited access to healthcare professionals, services and benefits, and difficult geography, lack of transportation and poor municipal infrastructure.
State Representative Smitty Pignatelli says Fairview Hospital helps bring the community together.
“We are so fortunate to have it here,” Pignatelli says.
The hospital is part of the Berkshire Health Systems network, and is one of two full-service hospitals in the region. A third, North Adams Regional Hospital, abruptly closed three years ago and has left many residents in northern Berkshire County uneasy.
Again, Congressman Neal:
“Certainly, if you didn’t have a star in the healthcare galaxy like Berkshire Medical Center, you might have ended up with nothing there. And I think the fact that Berkshire Medical was able to put together what they have is a good start. Today there are not many hospitals across the country, if any, that say that they are going to reopen as full-service after they have closed their doors, and in rural America it’s an acute problem,” Neal says.
But Pignatelli says Fairview is a champion for another reason, too.
“The critical access hospital part of this healthcare scenario,” Pignatelli says.
There are only three federally designated critical access hospitals in the state – Fairview and hospitals in Athol and Martha’s Vineyard. It recognizes in importance of healthcare in rural areas. Proponents of a full-service hospital in North Adams argue that the federal critical access designation could have saved NARH. The hospital’s application was denied in 2011.
Pignatelli says the distinction shows the commitment of the federal government to rural areas. In 2004, Massachusetts adopted the Healthcare-for-All policy, considered the forerunner of the Affordable Care Act.
With debate over health care still roiling in Washington, Neal says about 20 percent of the Massachusetts state budget goes toward Medicaid.
“The reason that Mom and Dad are not living in our attics is because of Medicare and Social Security, and now Medicaid’s expansion,” Neal says. “So this debate where you can arbitrarily kick 23 million people off of health insurance is mistaken.”
Neal says on average for Medicaid reimbursement, the federal government pays 60 percent and the state pays 40.
“Now that formula is changing because of the Affordable Care Act. So it’s more likely that the federal government will pick up more of the cost, but the state does have a contribution that they make,” Neal says.
Neal says if Obamacare’s pre-existing condition protections are stripped, 308,000 people in Massachusetts will lose the benefit.
“That’s why the mandate became so important. It is the most controversial part of the plan,” Neal says. “People say ‘why should I have health insurance?’ Well, because the rest of us pay more than $1,000 a year in our private healthcare plans to supplement those who don’t have health insurance.”
Neal says the Republican bill doesn’t account for how health insurance settles risk – when it often may be too late.
“If you follow that logic you say ‘if my house burns down then I will buy homeowners insurance. If my car is hit then I will buy automobile insurance,’” Neal says.