Rural hospitals see funding, testing strategy among biggest pandemic hurdles

Leaders of rural hospitals, including Smith County Memorial Hospital, joined Gov. Laura Kelly in a video call to discuss challenges of the pandemic. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Amid a pandemic that has drastically impacted the way rural hospitals provide services, telehealth has provided patients and staff at Smith County Memorial Hospital desperately needed services and support.

Allen Van Driel, CEO of the northern Kansas hospital, said medical professionals been able to connect with specialists from distant sites to provide services to their local patient base. The added hands were especially critical at the beginning of the pandemic when patients were scared to come in, he said.

“Telehealth has been especially effective in providing access to providers in the emergency department,” Van Driel said. “We now have a backup system in place of distant-site ER physicians available, so it greatly enhances our ability to deliver services.”

Van Driel was among half a dozen rural hospital administrators from across Kansas who joined Gov. Laura Kelly Wednesday to discuss the unique health care challenges faced in remote areas of the state, and what has and can be done to overcome them.

Van Driel said while telehealth has provided more thorough care for patients, there have been some financial drawbacks, primarily among Medicare patients.

“In our rural health clinic, we get paid significantly less for a telehealth encounter than a face-to-face encounter from the Medicare program,” he said. “We have the broadband capability, we can provide the services, but if we can’t get paid for it, then it has a really negative impact on the health system.”

Van Driel said some private insurance companies have also begun to limit payment for telehealth. In addition, the expanded services provided are only allowed to due to regulatory standards lowered by the state amid the pandemic.

Harold Courtois, CEO of Memorial Health System in Abilene, said he has dealt with financial concerns, as well. After burning through initial personal protective equipment, he said, county help has dwindled.

“My fear is during flu season that PPE is going to become scarce and difficult to find,” Courtois said. “It just seems like you don’t see a lot of PPE unless you are willing to pay enormous prices. There is still price gouging going on.”

Kelly thanked the administrators for their efforts and assured both Courtois and Van Driel that funding was on its way.

“My administration has been working diligently throughout the pandemic to ensure our health care workers have access to the PPE needed to stay safe,” Kelly said. “Through my Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas taskforce, or SPARK, we have allocated millions of dollars to public health with more to come.”

The SPARK task force recommended a plan for remaining federal pandemic relief aid with a maximum of $105 million to be spent on public health. The State Finance Council approved that spending.

At least $50 million is dedicated toward testing, another area of concern for some hospital administrators. The funding will be contingent upon a statewide testing strategy for which planning has already begun.

Kelly also broached the subject of vaccination dispersal, although she acknowledged concrete action on this issue was likely a few months away. She was supportive of requests from administrators to allow local providers flexibility to determine the way vaccinations are carried out.

“I see this a lot like the way we respond to wildfires or the way we respond to flooding,” Kelly said. “The state is really just the resource, but the folks who do the implementation are on the ground and in the communities.”

Kelly also heard from representatives for hospitals in Rawlins County, Graham County, Seward County and the Kansas Hospital Association.