Can Rural Hospitals Survive COVID Crunch?

By Mike Moen

Coronavirus cases have continued to soar in South Dakota.

The situation comes as rural health-care systems in the U.S. struggle to survive.

Among Midwestern states, South Dakota isn’t alone in seeing the virus infect more people, but it still is near the top nationally in weekly cases per capita.

Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the National Rural Health Association, said a big concern now in the U.S. is rural areas, where community spread has been hard to control. Making matters worse, it’s been difficult for residents in these areas to access care.

“When someone is experiencing anxiety due to physical conditions that are very troubling, these delays can be very, very impactful and create lots of problems in their well-being,” Slabach cautioned.

He said rural providers are seeing “fractures” being widened in these communities. He cites staffing, supplies and lack of reimbursements as critical problems for hospitals.

South Dakota is seeing a record number of hospitalizations for COVID. And a facility in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe was recently forced to send two coronavirus patients to an out-of-state hospital.

Nationally, 15 rural hospitals have closed in the U.S. this year. None have been in South Dakota, but Slabach said many systems in smaller communities face a severe cash crunch, leaving room for doubt about their future.

He pointed to a pause in elective surgeries at the start of the pandemic and slow reimbursement payments, while adding it will be hard for them to improve their outlook in the near future.

“This will exacerbate, I think, some of the problems that have already existed for a long time in rural communities,” Slabach asserted.

He said part of the problem is that treating COVID patients can be very expensive, placing an even greater financial burden on facilities struggling to stay afloat.

To get a handle on the immediate problem, he said increased testing and contact tracing in rural areas can help with case management, and potentially reduce demand for hospitalizations.

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