Lucas’ rural ER bill hits speed bump

mlee@macon.comFebruary 19, 2014 

SPLOST

David Lucas

WOODY MARSHALL/THE TELEGRAPH — WOODY MARSHALL/THE TELEGRAPH

ATLANTA -- Opening tiny emergency rooms in underserved rural communities might be a good idea, and a key Senate committee is pondering a study committee on the question.

But state Sen. David Lucas wants quicker movement on a legal change.

“We are not a Third World country,” said Lucas, but “somehow we’ve done everything in this state for economic development, airline tax breaks, folks who make planes get tax breaks, but we’re talking about the average Georgia citizen.”

That is, rural residents who live dozens of miles and more from an emergency room, possibly hours from stabilization if someone in their family has a heart attack, stroke or accident.

The longtime Macon Democrat now represents a large district including all or part of five rural counties. One is Hancock, where the only hospital closed years ago.

The tiny stabilization centers or urgent care centers envisioned in his Senate Bill 338 would provide triage, then send patients to hospitals.

The bill exempts such stabilization centers from having to prove to state hospital regulators that they are a viable proposition.

Indeed, nobody is arguing that such centers could make money. Lucas’ bill is silent on money.

He suggests the centers would need to tap federal funds.

Such centers “may be part of a larger plan” for rural health care, said Julie Windom of Stratus Healthcare, a nonprofit alliance that includes Bibb, Houston and Peach hospitals.

“We’re trying to look at ways big regional hospitals could help,” Windom said, maybe by sharing administration, for example. But regular money is the key.

If there’s an influx of money in the first few years, Windom said, which later slows or stops, communities would be again left with empty facilities.

“Stabilization centers are something we need to look at,” said Monty Veazey, president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals. He’s in favor of a study committee, saying his members would want to be at the table. “We need to see what the models are in other states,” he said.

At a Wednesday hearing, Lucas asked Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chair Renee Unterman, R-Buford, for a few days to fine-tune his bill in consultation with hospital regulators. His bill as written is not technically workable, he admitted.

Lack of rural health care “is like a boil that’s been festering for a while, and it’s coming to a head,” said Unterman, adding that she wants a study committee and she wants to visit Hancock County.

Unterman held no vote, and afterward Lucas said the problem has been obvious for years.

“I don’t plan on trying to wait for next year,” he said.

The committee has yet to schedule any further activity on the bill.

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