Fighting to keep rural hospitals open

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National legislation could have huge impact on small towns

BUCKHANNON — It’s been said that all politics is local, but if you want to help take local input to the state or national level, you should sign to become part of WVU St. Joseph’s Hospital grassroots advocacy health care team.

That’s the message hospital administrator Skip Gjolberg delivered at last Tuesday’s Buckhannon Rotary Club meeting.

Although the hospital held a couple of workshops on forming a local health care advocacy team last year, he said at Tuesday’s meeting that he’s ready to start assembling the team so it can, among other things, began advocating for initiatives that will benefit rural hospitals like St. Joseph’s Hospital.

“We’re trying to basically get people organized and together to help contact legislators’ offices like Rep. (Alex) Mooney when we have something going on, whether it’s local here in town, at the state down in Charleston, or up in Washington, D.C.,” Gjolberg said. “We want to educate citizens in the community about the importance of having a local hospital and what can happen when these hospitals close.

“Having an advocacy team helping to kind of fight the battle can help keep our hospital open with legislative things that might impact us, either favorably or unfavorably,” Gjolberg added.

Gjolberg said that, in general in rural communities, 14 percent of total employment is attributable to the health care sector. Rural hospitals are typically the top or one of the top two employers in a community, and they provide approximately 107 jobs and generate about $4.8 million in payroll.

However, St. Joseph’s has a much larger payroll, Gjolberg said.

“Our annual payroll including benefits is $25 million, so it’s quite a bit larger than the typical rural hospital,” he said. “We’re the second largest employer here in Upshur County.”

Gjolberg went on to describe why it’s so essential to have access to hospitals in rural counties, saying rural communities are usually home to people who work as farmers, miners and in the logging industry — occupations that make employees more prone to accidents.

“Rural populations are also usually older. They’re sicker, and they’re either uninsured or underinsured,” he said.

St. Joseph’s Hospital sees between 35 and 55 patients per day, and there are about 1,200 to 1,400 visits to the facility on a monthly basis, Gjolberg added, noting the hospital has been busy lately as a result of flu season being in full swing.

In addition, having an emergency room in close proximity is critical in cases of stroke and heart attack, Gjolberg said.

“It can make a big difference in people’s lives,” he said. “If that ER is not there, it can be a bad thing for some people.”

The hospital delivers about 300 babies per year, but it’s working to increase that number as state government simultaneously works to increase West Virginia’s population and prevent people from moving away.

“The other reason why it’s really important [to have a hospital in a rural community] is that if you try to grow the economy here in Upshur County, and a company is looking at maybe coming to town, what are they going to look for?” Gjolberg asked. “They’re going to look for three things: access to quality health care, good schools and an attractive labor market.”

Gjolberg briefly discussed the Affordable Care Act’s impact on St. Joseph’s Hospital, saying the expansion of Medicaid was a plus for the hospital because it is able to get reimbursed for seeing low-income patients.

“Millions of people were able to get on affordable health care, so what that meant for us is that people that we saw, we got reimbursed,” Gjolberg explained. “We saw an uptick in people that couldn’t pay copays and deductibles, but by and large, Medicaid expansion was a really good thing for the hospitals in the states where that happened.”

However, even with the impact of that expansion, across the U.S. 683 rural hospitals are on the verge of closing, Gjolberg said.

There’s 1,800 rural hospitals across the United States, so that’s about a third of hospitals that could potentially shut their doors,” he said. “I don’t have the answers. I just know I want to keep rural health care going in Upshur County.”

Gjolberg said the hospital’s grassroots advocacy team currently has about 15 to 17 members, but more are welcome. Anyone interested should contact [email protected] for more details.

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