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Addressing Georgia’s Rural Healthcare Needs

By Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn)

Every morning across Georgia, farmers and their families rise with the sun and work extremely hard to make sure all of us have a safe and abundant food supply.

With 42,000 working farms, our state is the nation’s top producer of peanuts, pecans, chickens and watermelons — and one of the highest producers of everything from cotton to peaches.

Because of the faithful, daily stewardship of 9 million acres of productive farmland, agriculture remains Georgia’s No. 1 industry, contributing $71 billion annually to our economy.

However, our farm families and their neighbors are facing a very real and growing threat.

Georgia’s rural health care system is in crisis. There is a serious shortage of doctors to treat the 1.8 million residents scattered among our 108 rural counties, and most of rural Georgia’s 61 community hospitals are in life-or-death financial struggles.

Many of these small hospitals were built with federal funding in the 1950s and have been a vital part of their communities ever since.

But multiple changes in reimbursement formulas and programs, along with large charity caseloads and heavy debt, are straining these small hospitals to the breaking point.

Although I have l lived and worked on my family’s farm in Barrow County all of my life, I really didn’t begin to understand the depth of rural Georgia’s health care crisis until last summer.

Jimmy Lewis, the executive director of HomeTown Health LLC, decided it was time to educate me. His company advocates for hospitals and other providers in the rural health care system. He invited me in my role as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee to go with him on a field trip to some Central Georgia hospitals so that I could see for myself what is going on.

When I saw dedicated health care providers actually break down in tears during that two-day tour, it was clear to me that no one is exaggerating the depth of this crisis. It is real. And complex. During a second field trip last month to other rural hospitals, I saw how imperative it is that we work quickly to find solutions.

City folks might assume wrongly that what happens in rural Georgia doesn’t affect them. But I promise you that when our farmers don’t have access to emergency medical care, the impact on our economy and in our kitchens will be profound.

If the tide isn’t turned soon, we also will see a ripple effect on large hospitals as thousands of patients who had received free care at the shuttered hospitals turn up in busy emergency rooms.

I do know one thing already. There will be no single silver bullet that will get the job done. The issue has too many moving targets. But that doesn’t mean we won’t hit some of them.

Under Gov. Nathan Deal’s direction, the Georgia Department of Community Health earlier this year issued a rule to allow closed and endangered rural hospitals to apply to the state to become freestanding emergency departments. The idea is to keep lifesaving emergency care, as well as hundreds of health care jobs, in these small communities.

And in April the governor appointed to a new Rural Hospital Stabilization Committee several people with expertise in rural health care, agriculture, local government and education. He also asked Sen. David Lucas and me to serve on the committee so that we could work on some legislative solutions.

Charles Owens, the director of the State Office of Rural Health, is a vital member of this committee.

This is not just another study committee whose findings and recommendations will wind up gathering dust on a shelf in the state bureaucracy and never see the light of day.

Every member of this committee is absolutely committed to getting to the roots of what is threatening the viability of rural hospitals. And we will find solutions that strengthen not only them but also the entire rural health care system of Georgia.

State Representative Terry England

Representative Terry England represents the citizens of District 116, which includes most of Barrow County. He was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2004 and sworn into office on Jan. 10, 2005. Currently, he serves as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and is an ex-officio member of the Ways & Means Committee. He also serves on the Agriculture & Consumer Affairs Committee, the Education Committee, the Industry and Labor Committee, and Natural Resources & Environment Committee.