At Hearing on HHS Budget, Senator Cites “Very Critical” Rural Hospital Problems

Senator Hyde-Smith and HHS Secretary Azar on Rural Hospitals
VIDEO:  Senator Hyde-Smith and HHS Secretary Azar on Rural Hospitals.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) today stressed the need for federal action to address the risk of rural hospitals closing in Mississippi and other rural states.

Hyde-Smith raised the rural hospital issue at a Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Thursday on the FY2020 budget request for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“We must keep working to find strong actions that we can take to help rural hospitals in Mississippi stay open.  Rural hospital closures have reached a very critical point in our state,” Hyde-Smith said following the hearing.

At the hearing, Hyde-Smith told HHS Secretary Alex Azar about her growing concerns regarding rural healthcare in Mississippi, which has more rural hospitals at risk of closing than any other state.  She cited recent reports showing half of all rural hospitals in Mississippi are at high financial risk of shutting their doors.

“When a hospital closes, the whole community is affected in so many ways, not only the employment there.  Most importantly, it means no more access to emergency care for the community’s residents,” Hyde-Smith said.  “In an emergency, timely care is of essence, and having close-by access to them can truly mean life or death.”

Azar assured Hyde-Smith, “We’re working on this.”

“You have repeatedly raised with me the concerns about rural hospital access in Mississippi, and in part because of your efforts I have created a task force across HHS to help come up with all ideas that we can around how we can address the hospital crisis,” Azar said.

The Secretary listed ongoing review of HHS programs, policies, and rules to determine their effectiveness in supporting access to rural health care and hospital financial survivability.

“Let me give you some ideas.  One of them we just were discussing, which is telehealth. How can we help make sure that we’re expanding access into rural America because we’ll end up consolidating everyone living in urban areas if we can't provide them healthcare in rural America,” Azar said.

“We also have to make sure that our regulations at CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] or otherwise are not creating artificial barriers to economically viable models of hospitals in rural America. Are we trying to force a 1960s model of hospitals through our payment systems and other regulations onto rural America?” he said.