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By Nathan Beacom
Policy Associate 

COVID-19 reveals shortages in rural health care

 

December 3, 2020



In spring 2020, we heard terrible stories of overburdened hospitals leading to preventable deaths in New York City. Now, as the COVID-19 virus surges to a new peak, these shortages have reached rural areas, where hospital systems are often under-resourced and understaffed.

In Nebraska, rural counties are seeing record numbers of hospitalizations. As of last week, in the region surrounding Platte County, there was only one available intensive care unit bed, with rural areas in the state reporting less than 10% of open ICU beds.

In response, federal and state officials made moves to increase health care capacity, including streamlining medical licensing and waiving telehealth regulations. The telehealth changes allow health care providers licensed in other states to provide care in Nebraska and waive the requirement for written agreements before visits to give patients the opportunity to seek certain types of care through routes that put less stress on overburdened hospitals.

In the long term, the pandemic should make us aware that, even in normal times, rural hospitals often lack resources and staffing, therefore the attention of health care professionals and policymakers needs to be toward addressing those shortages.

Making the emergency changes to telehealth access permanent is a good start. However, the state also needs to consider legislation for parity in telehealth reimbursement rates, so that telehealth appointments don’t cost more than in-person visits.

The pandemic needs to be a wakeup call to the needs of rural health systems and opportunity to be creative in looking for new solutions.

 

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