Seven hours to cover 250 miles. That’s how long the roundtrip drive took us from our Macon County chicken farm to my mom’s now-regular appointment at Emory University Hospital. As Vietnamese refugees, my parents aren’t strangers to long journeys. They moved to Georgia to pursue the American Dream. However, like for many Georgians, the coronavirus has turned their American Dream into a nightmare – and exposed a rural healthcare horror show.
This trek became necessary after our closest hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, emerged as the South’s coronavirus epicenter. The pandemic forced an already overwhelmed and overburdened facility, which serves 800,000 Georgians, to cancel my mom’s appointments – and all nonessential care.
And my mom’s one of the lucky ones. At the pandemic’s peak, Southwest Georgia became home to five of the top 10 U.S. counties with the highest coronavirus death rates. More than 422,000 Georgians have been infected.
The country enters a third wave with hospitalizations rising in 37 states with disproportionate burden onto our rural communities. But it didn’t have to be this way.
Just when our families need lifelines, the Trump Administration has underfunded rural healthcare facilities, prevented hospitals from hiring doctors, and pushed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which would leave millions without coverage.
It’s clear. We need new leadership and meaningful action, not political window dressing and gimmicks. That starts with three critical policy changes:
First, fund rural hospitals and expand telehealth and broadband. With fewer reimbursable services and higher costs, health systems lost $202.6 billion between March and June and are projected to lose another $120.5 billion by January. Smaller rural hospitals, already under financial pressure pre-pandemic, may not survive. Two rural hospitals have already shuttered this year.
At the same time, federal support has been grossly inadequate. While the CARES Act provided some funds for rural communities, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services added just $2.4 million to 20 Georgia hospitals each in August. These are hospitals with enormous needs and minimal resources. Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, for example, used six months of masks in six days – eroding their margins by $1 million daily.
It’s time to significantly increase infrastructure financing and operational funding for rural hospitals, as well as provide greater repayment flexibility. This also means boosting grants to medical schools so underserved communities can retain future physicians. We must also support bipartisan legislation to deepen telehealth access for mental health and emergency care. This includes increasing healthcare providers’ broadband service and subsidies to all public hospitals.
Second, retain foreign doctors. Even if rural hospitals receive the funding they need, the Administration’s shortsighted visa restrictions on skilled foreign professionals and students have shut off a pipeline of medical practitioners, precisely when they’re needed most.
Shockingly, 64 Georgia counties have no pediatrician. This physician shortage is expected to skyrocket above 120,000 by 2030. Foreign-born doctors, which comprise 17% of Georgia’s physicians, have helped fill the gap. But it’s harder for these doctors to stay.
Fortunately, there are solutions to this problem. That begins with endorsing bipartisan legislation to waive requirements for American-trained foreign physicians to return to their home country for at least two years, if those J-1 visa holders stay for three years to practice in federally-designated underserved communities.
Third, protect health insurance. While more resources for Georgia’s rural hospitals would be a huge step forward, the Administration’s Supreme Court effort to scrap the ACA could leave 20 million Americans and 460,000 Georgians without health insurance. Over 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions could have their coverage lapse.
This attack could also reduce the quality of healthcare coverage for millions who were laid off and lost employer-sponsored health insurance during this pandemic. Before the ACA, 75% of health plans didn’t cover maternity care, mental health, substance abuse treatment, and prescription drugs. Where will rural Georgians get healthcare?
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling, we must prioritize a nationwide solution that ensures Georgians — especially those with preexisting conditions – keep and continue to have access to affordable healthcare coverage.