For the 20% of Americans who rely on rural hospitals for their care, the blue and white “H” is among the most reassuring signs they’ll ever see. It signals that expert care, help and healing is available and nearby. Even if that hospital is located dozens of miles away from the patient or family it serves, it is close enough to make a difference — to be a reliable partner in health care.

But that longstanding reliance is under siege. Even prior to COVID-19, many rural hospitals were struggling with chronic threats to their ability to keep their doors open.
The pandemic has battered the finances of hospitals nationwide and hit rural hospitals especially hard. Continuing an alarming trend, at least 17 rural hospitals have closed in 2020 alone, and more are in jeopardy of shuttering their doors.

And it’s about more than reduced medical services. Rural hospitals also are community strongholds and pillars of their local economies, creating essential jobs that support families and community vitality.

The AHA has fought hard to make sure rural hospitals received relief – financial and regulatory – during the pandemic. We’ve secured billions of dollars in emergency relief funds, including a $10-billion targeted distribution specifically for rural hospitals, as well as loan opportunities and accelerated Medicare payments. We’ve helped to expand telehealth access and flexibilities, and enhanced critical grant programs for rural providers. And we’ve been sharing examples of how rural hospitals have been managing the crisis to help assist others in the field, as well as resources to help them confront the pandemic’s challenges.

While we’ve accomplished a lot, we know there is still much more to do, which is why additional COVID-19 relief remains a top priority for us during the lame-duck session of Congress (and into next year.

Fortunately for our members, AHA’s Future of Rural Health Care Task Force has provided strategic thought leadership on the future delivery and financing of rural health care that ensures local access to care for millions of Americans who live, work and raise their families in rural areas.

Thursday, Nov. 19, is National Rural Health Day. Throughout the week, the AHA will focus on the importance of rural hospitals through a multifaceted, multimedia campaign centered on three themes: pathways to recovery, increasing access and eliminating disparities.

The state and strength of rural health care is critical to the fabric of American health care. And it is our mission to safeguard it, improve it, expand it, and advance it for future generations.

These are the words I used at the AHA Rural Health Care Leadership Conference in Arizona this past February. While COVID-19 has changed so much in our communities, our country and our health care system this year, we remain steadfast in our mission and commitment to supporting rural hospitals.

And while we won’t be in the same room for next year’s AHA Rural Conference, you can register now for the Feb. 18-19 virtual conference so we can continue this important conversation.

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