So, one of the options that the Democrats are pushing is “Medicare-for-All.” But do the voters like the idea? Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar noted that Americans like the idea of “Medicare-for-all,” but support flips to disapproval if it would result in higher taxes or longer waits for care. Then how will the plan be financed?
That’s a key insight from a national poll released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. It comes as Democratic presidential hopefuls embrace the idea of a government-run health care system, considered outside the mainstream of their party until Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders made it the cornerstone of his 2016 campaign. President Donald Trump is opposed, saying “Medicare-for-all” would “eviscerate” the current program for seniors.
The poll found that Americans initially support “Medicare-for-all,” 56 percent to 42 percent.
However, those numbers shifted dramatically when people were asked about the potential impact, pro, and con.
Support increased when people were told “Medicare-for-all” would guarantee health insurance as a right (71 percent) and eliminates premiums and reduce out-of-pocket costs (67 percent).
But if they were told that a government-run system could lead to delays in getting care or higher taxes, support plunged to 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively. Support fell to 32 percent if it would threaten the current Medicare program.
“The issue that will really be fundamental would be the tax issue,” said Robert Blendon, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who reviewed the poll. He pointed out those state single-payer efforts in Vermont and Colorado failed because of concerns about the tax increases needed to put them in place.
There doesn’t seem to be much disagreement that a single-payer system would require tax increases since the government would take over premiums now paid by employers and individuals as it replaces the private health insurance industry. The question is how much.
Several independent studies have estimated that government spending on health care would increase dramatically, in the range of about $25 trillion to $35 trillion or more over a 10-year period. But a recent estimate from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst suggests that it could be much lower. With significant cost savings, the government would need to raise about $1.1 trillion from new revenue sources in the first year of the new program.
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., has asked the Congressional Budget Office for a comprehensive report on single-payer. The CBO is a nonpartisan outfit that analyzes the potential cost and impact of legislation. Its estimate that millions would be made uninsured by Republican bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act was key to the survival of President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Mollyann Brodie, director of the Kaiser poll, said the big swings in approval and disapproval show that the debate over “Medicare-for-all” is in its infancy. “You immediately see that opinion is not set in stone on this issue,” she said.
Indeed, the poll found that many people are still unaware of some of the basic implications of a national health plan.
For example, most working-age people currently covered by an employer (55 percent) said they would be able to keep their current plan under a government-run system, while 37 percent correctly answered that they would not.
There’s one exception: Under a “Medicare-for-all” idea from the Center for American Progress employers and individuals would have the choice of joining the government plan, although it wouldn’t be required. Sanders’ bill would forbid employers from offering coverage that duplicates benefits under the new government plan.
“Medicare-for-all” is a key issue energizing the Democratic base ahead of the 2020 presidential election, but Republicans are solidly opposed.
“Any public debate about ‘Medicare-for-all’ will be a divisive issue for the country at large,” Brodie said.
The poll indicated widespread support for two other ideas advanced by Democrats as alternatives to a health care system fully run by the government.
Majorities across the political spectrum backed allowing people ages 50-64 to buy into Medicare, as well as allowing people who don’t have health insurance on the job to buy into their state’s Medicaid program.
Separately, another private survey out Wednesday finds the uninsured rate among U.S. adults rose to 13.7 percent in the last three months of 2018. The Gallup National Health and Well-Being Index found an increase of 2.8 percentage points since 2016, the year Trump was elected promising to repeal “Obamacare.” That would translate to about 7 million more uninsured adults.
Government surveys have found that the uninsured rate has remained essentially stable under Trump.
The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll was conducted Jan. 9-14 and involved random calls to the cellphones and landlines of 1,190 adults. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Trump Seeks Action To Stop Surprise Medical Bills
A healthcare reporter, Emmarie Huettman reported that President Trump instructed administration officials Wednesday to investigate how to prevent surprise medical bills, broadening his focus on drug prices to include other issues of price transparency in health care.
Flanked by patients and other guests invited to the White House to share their stories of unexpected and outrageous bills, Trump directed his health secretary, Alex Azar, and labor secretary, Alex Acosta, to work on a solution, several attendees said.
“The pricing is hurting patients, and we’ve stopped a lot of it, but we’re going to stop all of it,” Trump said during a roundtable discussion when reporters were briefly allowed into the otherwise closed-door meeting.
David Silverstein, the founder of a Colorado-based nonprofit called Broken Healthcare who attended, said Trump struck an aggressive tone, calling for a solution with “the biggest teeth you can find.”
“Reading the tea leaves, I think there’s a big change coming,” Silverstein said.
Surprise billing, or the practice of charging patients for care that is more expensive than anticipated or isn’t covered by their insurance, has received a flood of attention in the past year, particularly as Kaiser Health News, NPR, Vox and other news organizations have undertaken investigations into patients’ most outrageous medical bills.
Attendees said the 10 invited guests — patients as well as doctors — were given an opportunity to tell their story, though Trump didn’t stay to hear all of them during the roughly hourlong gathering.
The group included Paul Davis, a retired doctor from Findlay, Ohio, whose daughter’s experience with a $17,850 bill for a urine test after back surgery was detailed in February 2018 in KHN-NPR’s first Bill of the Month feature.
Davis’ daughter, Elizabeth Moreno, was a college student in Texas when she had spinal surgery to remedy debilitating back pain. After the surgery, she was asked to provide a urine sample and later received a bill from an out-of-network lab in Houston that tested it.
Such tests rarely cost more than $200, a fraction of what the lab charged Moreno and her insurance company. But fearing damage to his daughter’s credit, Davis paid the lab $5,000 and filed a complaint with the Texas attorney general’s office, alleging “price gouging of staggering proportions.”
Davis said White House officials made it clear that price transparency is a “high priority” for Trump, and while they didn’t see eye to eye on every subject, he said he was struck by the administration’s sincerity.
“These people seemed earnest in wanting to do something constructive to fix this,” Davis said.
Dr. Martin Makary, a professor of surgery and health policy at Johns Hopkins University who has written about transparency in health care and attended the meeting, said it was a good opportunity for the White House to hear firsthand about a serious and widespread issue.
“This is how most of America lives, and [Americans are] getting hammered,” he said.
Trump has often railed against high prescription drug prices but has said less about other problems with the nation’s health care system. In October, shortly before the midterm elections, he unveiled a proposal to tie the price Medicare pays for some drugs to the prices paid for the same drugs overseas, for example.
Trump, Azar, and Acosta said efforts to control costs in health care were yielding positive results, discussing, in particular, the expansion of association health plans and the new requirement that hospitals post their list prices online. The president also took credit for the recent increase in generic drug approvals, which he said would help lower drug prices.
Discussing the partial government shutdown, Trump said Americans “want to see what we’re doing, like today we lowered prescription drug prices, the first time in 50 years,” according to a White House pool report.
Trump appeared to be referring to a recent claim by the White House Council of Economic Advisers that prescription drug prices fell last year.
However, as STAT pointed out in a recent fact check, the report from which that claim was gleaned said “growth in relative drug prices has slowed since January 2017,” not that there was an overall decrease in prices.
Annual increases in overall drug spending have leveled off as pharmaceutical companies have released fewer blockbuster drugs, patents have expired on brand-name drugs and the waning effect of a spike driven by the release of astronomically expensive drugs to treat hepatitis C.
Drugmakers were also wary of increasing their prices in the midst of growing political pressure, though the pace of increases has risen recently.
Since Democrats seized control of the House of Representatives this month, party leaders have rushed to announce investigations and schedule hearings dealing with health care, focusing in particular on drug costs and protections for those with preexisting conditions.
Last week, the House Oversight Committee announced a “sweeping” investigation into drug prices, pointing to an AARP report saying the vast majority of brand-name drugs had more than doubled in price between 2005 and 2017.
The Ground Game for Medicaid Expansion: ‘Socialism’ or a Benefit for All?
One of the other options is that of expanding Medicaid but is that socialism or a benefit for all. Michael Ollove noted that a yard sign in Omaha promotes Initiative 427, which would expand Medicaid in Nebraska. Voters in the red states of Idaho and Utah also will decide whether to join 33 states and Washington, D.C., in extending Medicaid benefits to more low-income Americans as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act. Montana voters will decide whether to make expansion permanent.
Nati Harnik noted that on a sun-drenched, late October afternoon, Kate Wolfe and April Block are canvassing for votes in a well-tended block of homes where ghosts and zombies compete for lawn space with Cornhusker regalia. Block leads the way with her clipboard, and Wolfe trails behind, toting signs promoting Initiative 427, a ballot measure that, if passed, would expand Medicaid in this bright red state.
Approaching the next tidy house on their list, they spot a middle-aged woman with a bobbed haircut pacing in front of the garage with a cellphone to her ear.
Wolfe and Block pause, wondering if they should wait for the woman to finish her call when she hails them. “Yes, I’m for Medicaid expansion,” she calls. “Put a sign up on my lawn if you want to.” Then she resumes her phone conversation.
Apart from one or two turndowns, this is the sort of warm welcome the canvassers experience this afternoon. Maybe that’s not so surprising even though this is a state President Donald Trump, an ardent opponent of “Obamacare,” or the Affordable Care Act, carried by 25 points two years ago.
Although there has been no public polling, even the speaker of the state’s unicameral legislature, Jim Scheer, one of 11 Republican state senators who signed an editorial last month opposing the initiative, said he is all but resigned to passage. “I believe it will pass fairly handily,” he told Stateline late last month.
Anne Garwood (left), a tech writer, and April Block, a middle school teacher, review voter lists in preparation for canvassing an Omaha neighborhood in favor of Initiative 427, which would expand Medicaid in Nebraska.
The Pew Charitable Trusts
Bills to expand eligibility for Medicaid, the health plan for the poor run jointly by the federal and state governments, have been introduced in the Nebraska legislature for six straight years. All failed. Senate opponents said the state couldn’t afford it. The federal government couldn’t be counted on to continue to fund its portion. Too many people were looking for a government handout.
Now, voters will decide for themselves.
Nebraska isn’t the only red state where residents have forced expansion onto Tuesday’s ballot. Idaho and Utah voters also will vote on citizen-initiated measures on Medicaid expansion. Montana, meanwhile, will decide whether to make its expansion permanent. The majority-Republican legislature expanded Medicaid in 2015, but only for a four-year period that ends next July.
Polling in those three states indicates a majority supports expanding Medicaid. Like Nebraska, all are heavily Republican states easily captured by Trump in 2016.
Last year’s failed attempt by Trump and congressional Republicans to unravel Obamacare revealed the popularity of the ACA with voters. Health policy experts said it also helped educate the public about the benefits of Medicaid, prompting activists in the four states to circumvent their Republican-led legislatures and take the matter directly to the voters.
Activists also were encouraged by the example of Maine, where nearly 60 percent of voters last year approved Medicaid expansion after the state’s Republican governor vetoed expansion bills five times.
“Medicaid has always polled well,” said Joan Alker, executive director of the Center for Children and Families at Georgetown. “When you explain what it does, they think it’s a good idea. What has changed is the intensity and growing recognition that states without expansion are falling further behind, especially in rural areas where hospitals are closing at an alarming rate.
“And all of the states with these ballot initiatives this year have significant rural populations.”
For many in Nebraska, the argument — advanced in one anti-427 television ad — that Medicaid is a government handout to lazy, poor people simply doesn’t square with what they know.
“These aren’t lazy, no-good people who refuse to work,” said Block, a middle school teacher, in an exasperating tone you can imagine her using in an unruly classroom. “They’re grocery store baggers, home health workers, hairdressers. They are the hardest workers in the world, who shouldn’t have to choose between paying for rent or food and paying for medicine or to see a doctor.”
Extending Benefits to Childless Adults
The initiative campaign began after the Nebraska legislature refused to take up expansion again last year. Its early organizers were, among others, a couple of Democratic senators and a nonprofit called Nebraska Appleseed.
Calling itself “Insure the Good Life,” an expansion of the state slogan, the campaign needed nearly 85,000 signatures to get onto the ballot. In July, the group submitted 136,000 signatures gathered from all 93 Nebraska counties.
The initiative would expand Medicaid to childless adults whose income is 138 percent of the federal poverty line or less. For an individual in Nebraska, that would translate to an income of $16,753 or less. Right now, Nebraska is one of 17 states that don’t extend Medicaid benefits to childless adults, no matter how low their income.
Under Medicaid expansion, the federal government would pay 90 percent of the health care costs of newly eligible enrollees, and the state would be responsible for the rest. The federal match for those currently covered by Medicaid is just above 52 percent.
The Nebraska Legislative Fiscal Office, a nonprofit branch of the legislature, found in an analysis that expansion would bring an additional 87,000 Nebraskans into Medicaid at an added cost to the state of close to $40 million a year. The current Medicaid population in Nebraska is about 245,000.
The federal government would send an additional $570 million a year to cover the new enrollees. An analysis from the University of Nebraska commissioned by the Nebraska Hospital Association, a backer of the initiative, found the new monies also would produce 10,800 new jobs and help bolster the precarious financial situation of the state’s rural hospitals.
For economic reasons alone, not expanding makes little sense, said state Sen. John McCollister, one of two Republican senators openly supporting expansion and a sponsor of expansion bills in the legislature, over coffee in an Omaha cafe one day recently.
“Nebraska is sending money to Washington, and that money is being sent back to 33 other states and not to Nebraska,” he said. “It’s obviously good for 90,000 Nebraskans by giving them longevity and a higher quality of life, but it also leads to a better workforce and benefits rural hospitals that won’t have to spend so much on uncompensated care.”
He said the state could easily raise the necessary money by increasing taxes on medical providers, cigarettes and internet sales. If 427 passes, those will be decisions for the next legislature.
Among the measure’s opponents are Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian advocacy group funded by David and Charles Koch that has been running radio ads against the initiative. Jessica Shelburn, the group’s state director in Nebraska, said her primary concern is that expansion would divert precious state resources and prompt cutbacks in the current optional services Medicaid provides.
“While proponents have their hearts in the right place,” Shelburn said, “we could end up hurting the people Medicaid is intended to help.”
Georgetown’s Alker, however, said that no expansion state has curtailed Medicaid services.
When the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, it mandated that all states expand Medicaid, but a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made expansion optional for the states. As of now, 33 states and Washington, D.C., have expanded, including states that tend to vote Republican, such as Alaska, Arkansas, and Indiana.
Expansion is not an election issue only in the states with ballot initiatives this year. Democratic gubernatorial candidates are making expansion a major part of their campaigns in Florida and Georgia.
Ashley Anderson, a 25-year-old from Omaha with epilepsy, is one of those anxiously hoping for passage in Nebraska. A rosy-faced woman, she wears a red polo shirt from OfficeMax, where she works part-time for $9.50 an hour in the print center. She aged out of Medicaid at 19, and her single mother can’t afford a family health plan through her employer.
Since then, because of Anderson’s semi-regular seizures, she says she can’t take a full-time job that provides health benefits, and private insurance is beyond her means.
Because Anderson also can’t afford to see a neurologist, she is still taking the medication she was prescribed as a child, even though it causes severe side effects.
Not long ago, Anderson had a grand mal seizure, which entailed convulsions and violent vomiting, and was taken by ambulance to the emergency room. That trip left her $2,000 in debt. For that reason, she said, “At this point, I won’t even call 911.”
Anderson might well qualify for Social Security disability benefits, which would entitle her to Medicaid, but she said the application process is laborious and requires documentation she does not have. As far as she is concerned, the initiative is her only hope for a change.
“You know what, I even miss having an MRI,” she said. “I’m supposed to have one every year.” She can’t remember the last time she had one.
For the uninsured, the alternatives are emergency rooms or federally qualified health centers, which do not turn away anyone because of poverty.
While the clinics provide primary care, dental care, and mental health treatment, they cannot provide specialty care or perform diagnostic tests such as MRIs or CAT scans, said Ken McMorris, CEO of Charles Drew Health Center, the oldest community health center in Nebraska, which served just under 12,000 patients last year.
Almost all its patients have incomes below 200 percent of poverty, McMorris said. Many have little access to healthy foods and little opportunity for exercise.
William Ostdiek, the clinic’s chief medical officer, said he constantly sees patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease whose symptoms are getting worse because they cannot afford to see specialists.
“It’s becoming a vicious cycle,” he said. “They face financial barriers to the treatments they need, which would enable them to have full, productive lives. Instead, they just get sicker and sicker.”
Expansion, McMorris said, would make all the difference for many of those patients.
Some county officials also hope for passage. Mary Ann Borgeson, a Republican county commissioner in Douglas County, which includes Omaha, said her board has always urged the legislature to pass expansion. “Most people don’t understand — for counties, the Medicaid is a lifeline for many people who otherwise lack health care.”
Consequently, she said, the county pays about $2 million a year to reimburse providers for giving care to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid and can’t afford treatment, money that would otherwise be in the pockets of county residents.
‘That Is Socialism’
Insure the Good Life has raised $2.2 million in support of 427, according to campaign finance reports and Meg Mandy, who directs the campaign. Significant contributions have come from outside the state, particularly from Families USA, a Washington-based advocacy organization promoting health care for all, and the Fairness Project, a California organization that supports economic justice.
Both groups are active in the other states with expansion on the ballot. Well-financed, the proponents have a visible ground game and a robust television campaign.
The opposition, much less evident, is led by an anti-tax Nebraska organization called the Alliance for Taxpayers, which has filed no campaign finance documents with the state.
Marc Kaschke, former mayor of North Platte, said he is the organization’s president, but referred all questions about finances to an attorney, Gail Gitcho, who did not respond to messages left at her office.
Gitcho had previously told the Omaha World-Herald that the group hadn’t been required to file finance reports because its ads only provided information about 427; it doesn’t directly ask voters to cast ballots against the initiative.
Last week, the Alliance for Taxpayers began airing its first campaign ads. One of them complains that the expansion would give “free health care” to able-bodied adults. It features a young, healthy-looking, bearded man, slouched on a couch and eating potato chips, with crumbs spilled over his chest.
In a phone interview, Kaschke made familiar arguments against expansion. He said the state can’t afford the expansion, that it would drain money from other priorities, such as schools and roads. He said he fears the federal government would one day stop paying its share, leaving the states to pay for the whole program.
He also said, repeating Shelburn’s claim, that with limited funds, the state would be forced to cut back services to the existing population.
“We feel the states would be in a better position to solve this problem of health care,” Kaschke said. He didn’t offer suggestions on how.
Outside influence ruffles many Nebraska voters. Duane Lienemann, a retired public school agricultural teacher from Webster County near the Kansas line, said he resents outside groups coming to the state telling Nebraskans how to vote.
And he resents “liberals” from Omaha trying to shove their beliefs down the throats of those living in rural areas.
Their beliefs about expansion don’t fly with him.
“I think history will tell you when you take money away from taxpayers and give it to people as an entitlement, it is not sustainable,” Lienemann said. “You cannot grow an economy through transferring money by the government. That is socialism.”
It’s a view shared by Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts. He is on record opposing the expansion, repeating claims that it would force cutbacks in other government services and disputing claims, documented in expansion states, that expansion leads to job growth. But Ricketts has not made opposition to expansion a central part of his campaign.
Whether he would follow in the path of Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, and seek to block implementation of the expansion if the initiative passed, is not clear. Ricketts’ office declined an interview request and did not clarify his position on blocking implementation.
For his part, Scheer, the speaker of the legislature, said he would have no part of that. “We’re elected to fulfill the wishes of the people,” he said. “If it passes, the people spoke.”
Rural Hospitals in Greater Jeopardy in the Non-Medicaid Expansion States
Michael Ollove reported that after marching 130 miles from rural Belhaven, North Carolina, to the state Capitol in Raleigh, protesters in 2015 rally against the closing of their hospital, Vidant Pungo. Medicaid expansion could be the difference between survival and extinction for many rural hospitals.
In crime novelist Agatha Christie’s biggest hit, “And Then There Were None,” guests at an island mansion die suspicious deaths one after another.
So you can forgive Jeff Lyle, a big fan of Christie’s, for comparing the 36-bed community hospital he runs in Marlin, Texas, to one of those unfortunate guests. In December, two nearby hospitals, one almost 40 miles away, the other 60 miles away, closed their doors for good.
The closings were the latest in a trend that has seen 21 rural hospitals across Texas shuttered in the past six years, leaving 160 still operating.
Lyle, who is CEO, can’t help wondering whether his Falls Community Hospital will be next.
“Most assuredly,” he replied when asked whether he could envision his central Texas hospital going under. “We’re not using our reserves yet, but I can see them from here.”
It’s not just Texas: Nearly a hundred rural hospitals in the United States have closed since 2010, according to the Center for Health Services Research at UNC-Chapel Hill. Another 600-plus rural hospitals are at risk of closing, according to an oft-cited 2016 report by iVantage Health Analytics.
Texas had the most hospitals in danger of closing (75), the health metrics firm said. And Mississippi had the largest share of hospitals at risk (79 percent).
Neither state has expanded Medicaid eligibility to more of its low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. In fact, the closures and at-risk hospitals are heavily clustered in the 14 states that have not expanded.
Those state decisions not to expand have deprived rural hospitals, which already operate with the slimmest of margins, of resources that could be the difference between survival and closure.
That is why Lyle and administrators of other rural hospitals in Texas and other non-expansion states are so adamant about their states joining the ranks of those that have expanded.
“It would mean a fair number of people we see who have no insurance would have insurance,” Lyle said. “And for us, a dollar is better than no dollar.”
In Texas, the expansion would make 1.2 million more people eligible for Medicaid, according to a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. An Urban Institute study in 2014 estimated that not expanding Medicaid would deprive Texas hospitals of $34.3 billion in federal reimbursements over 10 years.
Without that money, many rural hospitals in Texas and other non-expansion states have closed obstetrics units and other expensive services, forcing patients to travel long distances to seek treatment at the next-closest hospital, which is sometimes hours away.
By shedding those services, the hospitals diminish their reason for existing, said Maggie Elehwany, head of government affairs and policy for the National Rural Health Association.
The office of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the most recent Republican chairmen of the health committees in the Texas legislature (the legislature has yet to make committee assignments for the current legislative session), Sen. Charles Schwertner and Rep. Four Price, did not return calls requesting comment for this story.
But not everyone believes Medicaid expansion is the answer to the problems facing rural hospitals. “Medicaid is as likely to prop up inefficient and wasteful hospitals as anything else,” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Another rural hospital in Texas, Goodall-Witcher in Clifton, which also operates two community health clinics and a nursing room, risked closing until residents of Bosque County voted in November to create a hospital taxing district.
“I’m not saying we would have closed the day after the election,” said Adam Willmann, the hospital’s CEO, “but I don’t know how much longer we could have gone.”
The additional taxes will bring the hospital an estimated $2.5 million a year and perhaps take it out of the red, but they won’t necessarily lift Goodall-Witcher out of financial peril, Willmann said.
“Medicaid expansion,” Willmann said. “That is one of the key things we could do to help us deal with the tough financial demands we face.”
The burden of Uncompensated Care
As envisioned by the ACA when it passed Congress in 2010, expansion states would extend benefits to all adults — including childless adults — whose income was at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line. (In 2019, that would be an average individual income of $12,140, depending on the state.)
Initially, the federal government paid 100 percent of the health care costs of the expansion population. The federal share falls to 90 percent in 2020.
To date, 36 states plus Washington, D.C., have expanded Medicaid. By 2017, expansion under the ACA had covered 17 million new enrollees. Roughly another 4 million people would qualify in the remaining states, according to a 2018 Kaiser report.
Instead, many of those low-income residents remain uninsured or underinsured in plans with high deductibles and copayments.
But that doesn’t mean people don’t receive health care. Without health insurance, low-income people are less likely to get preventive care, which often results in worsening health conditions that frequently bring them to hospitals where they are guaranteed treatment. Under federal law, hospitals must stabilize and treat anyone showing up at the emergency room, regardless of their ability to pay.
Rural hospitals, like their urban counterparts, are forced to absorb those costs. But unlike bigger hospitals, their patient volumes, and operating margins are so low that “uncompensated care” burdens can be crippling.
For instance, Willmann said his hospital’s uncompensated tab last year was about $4.2 million, or 11 to 12 percent of his overall budget.
According to the Oklahoma Hospital Association, the state’s rural hospitals carried about $170 million in bad debt from charitable care and patients’ unpaid bills. Five rural hospitals have closed in the state since 2016.
A 2018 study in the journal Health Affairs found that the rate of closures of rural hospitals increased significantly in non-expansion states after 2014 when states began implementing the expansion. At the same time, closure rates decreased in expansion states.
Many administrators of rural hospitals are quick to say that Medicaid expansion alone will not solve their financial problems. Rural hospitals faced steep challenges long before the ACA.
Rural Americans tend to be older, in poorer health and less insured than those living elsewhere, the latter resulting in a greater share of uncompensated care for rural hospitals. Because of declining populations in rural areas, hospitals there often have empty beds, which means less revenue.
“It’s been a long, slow bleed,” said Fred Blavin, a health policy expert at the Urban Institute.
Automatic federal budget cuts beginning in 2013 (known as sequestration) reduced Medicare reimbursements, which are a particularly important source of revenue for hospitals. Congress has cut back on the amount hospitals can deduct for bad debt. Congress, in its budget tightening, reduced other forms of assistance to rural hospitals as well.
“You can put a Band-Aid on, but you still have 99 other wounds,” Willmann said.
Elehwany, of the National Rural Health Association, said that rural communities where hospitals are forced to close might be able to meet residents’ health needs by opening a new urgent care facility or maternal care center.
The loss of rural hospitals not only means patients having to travel longer distances to the next medical providers, but the closures also can often have a crippling effect on the local economy.
Goodall-Witcher Hospital is the largest employer in Bosque County. “Our payroll is bigger than the county’s entire budget,” Willmann said. “Can you imagine what it would do to this county to lose $9 million from the economy a year?”
A Health Services Research journal report found that when a rural area’s only hospital closes, income per capita falls by 4 percent and unemployment rises by 1.6 percent.
Willmann was relieved voters in his district supported the measure to create a hospital taxing district, but he acknowledged that it wasn’t a good deal for his county’s taxpayers. Their federal taxes help pay for the expansion in other states but not in Texas.
“Basically, you’re asking them to pay twice,” he said.
Rural hospital officials appear not to have the slightest hope that the deep red Texas legislature and the governor will get behind expansion.
“There is no likelihood of Medicaid expansion in Texas in the near term,” said John Henderson, CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals.
The government shutdown is over, but for how long? The New York Times finally got it correct when they wrote:
‘Our Country Is Being Run by Children’: Shutdown’s End Brings Relief and Frustration