Advocacy group takes support for rural hospitals to Charleston

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BUCKHANNON — The grassroots advocacy team formed at St. Joseph’s Hospital recently participated in one of its first events— Health Care Day at the West Virginia Legislature.

Skip Gjolberg, administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital, said he and the other members of the team were able to advocate on behalf of rural hospitals.

Having a grassroots advocacy team is something Gjolberg wanted to establish here because he has seen how it has worked in his previous employments in Texas and Wisconsin.

“I’ve been involved in advocacy for a long time,” he said at last week’s Buckhannon-Upshur Chamber of Commerce meeting. “It works. I have seen it work.”

At its core, grassroots advocacy is “citizens exercising their civic duty to support, in this situation, their local hospital,” he said.

The basic tenets are that citizens become knowledgeable about community and hospital health care issues and are willing to write, call or visit with local, state and federal legislators to advocate on behalf of rural hospitals.

About 14 percent of employment in rural communities is attributed to health care — hospitals, doctors’ offices, dentists, etc.

“Rural hospitals are typically the top one or two employers in a rural community,” Gjolberg said.

St. Joseph’s Hospital is the second largest employer behind Upshur County Schools in Upshur County. The hospital employs 349 full-time employees, with 421 total employees.

“We have an annual payroll of $25 million, including salary and benefits, so that is a pretty good chunk of change that comes into the community every year,” he said.

A typical rural hospital usually has just over 100 employees with a payroll of about $14 million.

In rural America, farming, mining and lumber are industries in which people can get hurt. Rural populations also tend to be older, requiring access to more health care. These people are often uninsured or underinsured.

“Even with the Affordable Care Act, where there was mandatory insurance requirements, a lot of those folks still did not get on,” Gjolberg said. “They just decided to take the penalty.”

Upshur County is no different because our population looks very similar.

“We do about 1,200 to 1,400 ER visits every month,” he said. “Some of those include people who are having strokes and heart attacks. That’s critical because time saves tissue. The faster you get in with a stroke or heart attack and we can administer the clot-busting medication — if you are having that type of stroke — it makes a difference. Time saves tissue and time saves heart muscle.”

The hospital delivers about 300 babies a year and sees 40,000 visits at its primary and specialty clinics.

“Rural hospitals across the United States have been closing at an accelerated rate,” he said.

This can adversely affect the local economy, not only in terms of job loss but in growth.

“It’s hard to get new families and businesses to come if you don’t have a local hospital,” Gjolberg said. “If you lose the community hospital, you lose a lot of jobs.”

Quality health care, good schools and labor market to pull from are what businesses look for when they want to come to an area, according to Gjolberg.

One issue that could be detrimental to rural hospitals is the potential repeal of the Medicaid expansion.

“For us, this Medicaid expansion was a real boon for states that did it,” he said. “Even with that though, there are about 683 rural hospitals across the country that are on the verge of shutting down.”

That’s about half of the rural hospitals in the country — 1,330. There have been 119 hospitals shut down since 2005 — 81 of those since 2010.

“Hospitals have been shutting their doors, and a lot of it is from all the legislative changes about how we get paid — hence the need for advocacy,” he said.

Critical access hospitals get reimbursed differently than a prospective payment system hospital.

“Medicaid expansion made a big difference because people we were seeing that were uninsured or underinsured now had insurance to help them pay for their care,” he said. “Medicaid does not pay the cost of care, but it helps.”

To join the advocacy team, email [email protected]

The Chamber of Commerce meeting was held in the library of St. Joseph’s Hospital and catered by the hospital. The hospital is now offering catering services.

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