Medicaid expansion would have ‘a big health impact,’ and critical-access hospitals need to change, rural-health expert says

Expansion of the Medicaid program under federal health-care reform would have a major beneficial impact on the health of Kentucky, a doctor who ran the state and national rural-health agencies told a rural-health meeting in Louisville Tuesday.

“Medicaid expansion has a big health impact,” Dr. Wayne Myers, left, told those at “Doing Care Differently in Rural Kentucky,” a seminar sponsored by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and the Kentucky Rural Health Association in Louisville, just before the opening of the National Rural Health Association‘s three-day conference in the city.

Myers said that in the three states that expanded Medicaid eligibility since 2000, one life was saved for every 176  people added to the program, according to a study by the Harvard University School of Public Health, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. If that figure were extrapolated to the entire nation, the number of lives saved would be greater than if breast, prostate and stomach cancer were eliminated, Myers said.

Skeptics argue that Kentucky can’t afford the estimated 6.3 percent annual cost increase for expanding Medicaid eligibility up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, but Myers said, “It would be nice to shift that argument from dollars to health impact.” He said that if the three cancers were curable with a certain amount of money, and you argued that the nation should not spend it because of the cost, “You’d have an uphill argument.”

Myers also said Eastern Kentucky would be an ideal place for Medicaid and Medicare to start rewarding small, rural hospitals for increasing their role in health promotion and disease prevention.

The federal designation of “critical access hospital” has kept open many rural hospitals, which get greater Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements in return for limiting beds, procedures and patient stays, but President Obama’s proposed budget calls for revoking the CAH status of some hospitals, and rural political clout has declined with the rural share of the nation’s population, Myers noted.

“The old models aren’t working too well,” Myers argued, saying “What people don’t realize is that [critical-access] hospitals get three-fourths of their money from the outpatient department” and have relatively few traditional admissions. He said half of them have fewer than four acute-care patients per day, and fewer than two patients who are recuperating or getting skilled-nursing care.

Then he displayed maps showing that life expectancies of rural Americans are not keeping pace with the rest of the country, and in some areas, including Eastern Kentucky, are declining. “That’s really scary,” he said.

Myers said those trends mean that CAHs should add health promotion and disease prevention to their job description, and Medicare and Medicaid — which provide 85 percent of their revenue — should pay them for performing that function.

He said hospitals have space, expertise and equipment to serve as exercise and medical-education centers, while most rural health departments are “overwhelmed” with a wide array of duties.

The federal payments for disease prevention and health promotion could be limited to hospitals in counties that have a certain percentage of their population on government-subsidized insurance, he said.

“If it makes sense anywhere, does it not make sense in Kentucky?” Myers asked, reiterating the question to focus on the state’s Fifth Congressional District, which he said has the nation’s lowest life expectancy. When a questioner mentioned the district’s congressman, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, Myers suggested the program could be named for the Somerset Republican.

Other speakers at the seminar called for new approaches in rural health, despite obstacles.

“Change is not easy. . . . Almost all federal policy tends to shortchange rural, at least initially,” said Craig Blakely, dean of the University of Louisville‘s School of Public Health and Information Sciences.

He said two important targets for prevention activities in rural America are smoking and obesity, which he said is exacerbated by high soft-drink consumption. Soft drinks are a $57-billion-a-year industry, jhe said, “so there’s a lot of pushback we’re going to be facing if we want to take that on.”

Blakely added that much of rural America is poor, and that is associated with poor health, so rural health providers also need to focus on education and employment opportunities for their communities.

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