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Sewell introduces bill to aid rural hospitals during pandemic

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-AL, has been leading the charge among Alabama lawmakers to keep citizens informed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – she has held briefings and press conferences alongside Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris and Alabama Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Brian Hastings, as well as a telephone town with the state leaders and others on the frontlines of the outbreak in Alabama, and has sent our regular email blasts to citizens throughout the crisis.

From her perch in Washington, Sewell has had a hand in approving both coronavirus-related legislative packages that have cleared the political gauntlet, the first of which provided some $8.3 billion in federal funding to support states’ efforts to fight the disease, and on Monday she took further action to specifically benefit rural communities and their hospitals.

The Immediate Relief for Rural Facilities and Providers Act, introduced by Sewell and U.S. Reps. Phil Roe, R-TN, and Kim Schrier, D-WA, would provide much-needed relief for rural hospitals and medical providers reeling from the growing number of COVID-19 cases across the state, which as of Tuesday afternoon were confirmed by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) to have reached 215 since the first case was reported Friday, March 13.

“While the coronavirus outbreak will have an impact on all health care providers, the economic pressures of this crisis could be the death knell for our already-struggling rural hospitals in Alabama unless they receive targeted economic relief,” Sewell said. “This bipartisan legislation will go a long way in stabilizing our rural hospitals by providing immediate payments to our rural health care providers to help ensure they are able to keep their doors open during this pandemic.”

Sewell noted in a press release that Alabama, like other states fighting the spread of the coronavirus, has suspended elective surgeries to open beds and ensure that there is space for “what is expected to be an enormous influx of COVID-19 related cases” – such procedures are often the bread and butter of rural hospitals and their cancellation could lead to unexpected closures.

In order to keep rural hospitals afloat during the pandemic, the Immediate Relief for Rural Facilities and Providers Act would provide immediate relief for rural hospitals by establishing an emergency, mandatory, one-time grant equaling $1,000 per patient each day for three months and a partner grant that would provide rural hospitals with the equivalent of three months-worth of reimbursement to stabilize the loss of revenue.

Additionally, the legislation would encourage hospital coordination by providing a 20 percent increase in Medicaid reimbursement for any patient in rural hospital using the swing bed program to incentivize freeing up capacity in larger, overcrowded hospitals and offer a one-time grant for all providers and ambulatory surgery centers equal to their payroll from Jan. 1 until April 1 of last year.

The legislation would also authorize the Small Business Administration (BSA) to provide low –interest loans to providers and ambulatory surgery centers at a 0.25 percent interest rate that won’t begin accruing until two years after the pandemic has ended.

The bill was carried in the Senate by U.S. Sens. Doug Jones, D-AL, Michael Bennett, D-CO, and John Barrasso, R-WY.