WASHINGTON, D.C. [04/19/20]—Today, U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.)—co-chairs of the Senate Rural Health Caucus—announced that they will be introducing their bipartisan Rural Health Relief Act, which would provide relief to rural hospitals amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by making them eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) created through the CARES Act.
The PPP provides 100 percent federally guaranteed loans to employers who maintain their payroll during the COVID-19 emergency, with loan forgiveness of up to eight weeks of payroll based on employee retention and salary levels. Unfortunately, the PPP as it currently stands excludes small, publicly-owned hospitals. Sens. Smith and Barrasso’s bipartisan legislation would provide immediate relief to America’s publicly-owned rural hospitals—which typically serve as the largest employers in rural areas and provide health care to millions of Americans—and working families by clarifying that small, county- and locally-owned hospitals can apply for the PPP.
“We need to get additional help to our hospitals—and that includes supporting hospitals in small towns and rural areas. Hospitals are having to lay people off while at the same time preparing for surges in patients. This puts them in an impossible position and we need to change that. Rural hospitals aren’t just vital to public health, they’re economic engines in Minnesota communities and places across the country,” said Sen. Smith, a member of the Senate Health Committee. “We need to fix the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) so that it works better and supports rural hospitals, and we need to make sure our bipartisan bill is part of the next relief package.”
“Rural hospitals need our help right now,” said Sen. Barrasso. “They are on the frontlines caring for our communities and fighting this pandemic. These facilities are critical for both the health and economic well-being of communities in Wyoming and across America. Supporting these facilities is a bipartisan priority that I strongly support.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is putting enormous financial strain on America’s rural hospitals, and even before the outbreak, 453 of America’s 1,844 rural hospitals were at risk of closure—this represents nearly one in four rural hospitals. As the nation complies with federal social distancing guidelines and state stay-at-home orders to contain COVID-19, rural hospitals are cancelling elective procedures, furloughing employees, and losing even more revenue. Sens. Smith and Barrasso understand that without additional financial support, there is little doubt that even more rural hospitals will be forced to shutter their doors, and more employees will lose their jobs.
Sens. Smith and Barrasso have long worked across party lines to support rural health care. Last year, on National Rural Health Day, the senators introduced a bill to address the disparity in access to health care in rural America by supporting key rural health workforce programs. Their bill—the Strengthening Our Rural Health Workforce Act—would help rural communities overcome these challenges by reauthorizing the Primary Care Training and Enhancement program—which creates more training positions for family, general internal, and general pediatric physicians—and guaranteeing that this training has a rural focus. The bill would also improve the recruitment of providers by funding area health education centers (AHECs), which help recruit and support practitioners in underserved and rural areas. Last year, Sens. Smith and Barrasso also introduced the Rural Health Clinic Modernization Act to modernize decades-old rules that are preventing communities from getting the best possible care at Rural Health Clinics. Their legislation would expand the ability of physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide care in these clinics, and improve the ability of clinics to offer telehealth services.