Panel begins work on ways to bolster rural health care

mlee@macon.comJune 9, 2014 

ATLANTA -- David Lucas is lucky that the worst thing that’s happened to him out in the country lately is a catfish-related injury that required a long drive to the hospital for removal of a fishhook from his thumb.

“If I’d been hunting in Hancock County and I got shot, I’d be dead,” the Democratic state senator from Macon said Monday during the first meeting of Georgia’s Rural Hospital Stabilization Committee. It’s a blue-ribbon panel meant to come up with ways to provide triage health care in underserved rural communities.

Their study list includes funding, recruitment and retention of medical professionals and baby delivery, among others. Lucas wants some ideas to take to the Legislature in January.

“I’ve actually had people admit that we’re ready to do something that might be somewhat different,” said Charles Owens, who heads the State Office of Rural Health, calling the conversations underway a “real exchange on what that might look like.”

Lucas and Owens both are on the 15-member committee, as is House heavyweight and Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn. There are also doctors, hospital administrators and others from all over the state.

It takes a population of about 40,000 to support a hospital without a subsidy, said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health, an association of mainly Georgia hospitals. Putting Georgia’s rural population at about 1.8 million, he said, would suggest viability for 45 rural hospitals.

“We’ve got 61 (rural hospitals). There is a variance,” said Lewis, but he added that combining hospitals is not necessarily possible.

For many communities, hospitals are a main source of quality jobs and often a prerequisite to attracting new investments -- and new people.

Republican Gov. Nathan Deal created the committee in April, and with his blessing, state hospital regulators have also passed a rule that would allow the opening of what are called “rural free standing emergency departments.” Such facilities would offer triage 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as well as handle routine baby deliveries and possibly other services.

But no hospital has yet applied for a license to open such a facility, according to the Department of Community Health.

The next committee meeting is expected to be scheduled in about a month.

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