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Rapp, legislators talk rural health care

Screenshot taken from legislative hearing Warren General CEO Rick Allen, right, speaks to a group of legislators during a hearing held earlier this week to gather feedback on the status of health care in rural areas.

A group of legislators heard all about challenges with the state’s rural health care system earlier this week.

The hearing was co-hosted by Rep. Kathy Rapp, who represents Warren County and chairs the Health Committee, and Martin Causer, chairman of the House Majority Policy Committee.

The session lasted over three hours and the top priorities identified, according to a joint statement, were telemedicine, recruitment initiatives and reimbursement issues.

“The testimony from rural hospital administrators, health care providers and advocacy organizations highlighted ongoing staffing shortages that existed even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rapp said in a Facebook post “and emphasized the need for financial incentives that will aid recruitment and encourage doctors and nurses to practice in rural and other medically underserved areas.”

Warren General Hospital CEO Rick Allen was one of the hospital administrators to speak.

“I arrived in Warren seven years ago to turn around a failing hospital,” Allen testified.

Citing in-house changes and the partnership with Allegheny Health Network, he said the “results have been phenomenal” as the hospital has “transformed” into an “award winning, high quality and fiscally stable hospital.”

“The journey toward our vision has not been easy,” he told the legislators.

“At Warren General Hospitals, we have addressed and yet to continue to face many issues which are amplified by our rural setting.”

He cited the pandemic, recruitment and retention, behavioral health services, specialty care, the “demands of organized labor,” the Affordable Care Act and the impact of large health systems.

“Warren County does not have a health department,” Allen said. “By default, Warren General Hospital has served as the county health department.” He called that an “issue” that “must be addressed” because WGH is not staffed, equipped or financed to serve in that role.

On the recruitment issue, Allen cited nurses that are leaving to non-health care positions and those that are “following the money” as traveling nurses. The agencies that hire those nurses, Allen said, are charging $210 per hour.

He said that “price gouging” by those agencies “must stop.”

Allen told the legislators that the hospital’s behavioral health unit is “always filled” and that patients are discharged for outpatient services “and then they wait and wait.” He said there’s a specific shortage of psychiatrists.

He also called for loosening rules around telemedicine and increasing reimbursement in that area. He also cited the “fragile economics” of small and rural hospitals and claimed that labor unions are using the crisis to make “unsustianable demands.”

Rapp said hearing directly from rural providers “was really impactful, especially for legislators who serve in more suburban districts. It’s important we have their support as we work on policy changes to support our rural hospitals and the patients who rely upon them.”

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