There is no dispute that America has one of the top health care systems in the world, with world-class doctors and nurses and unmatched medical innovation. However, the spread of the coronavirus has certainly brought some of the vulnerabilities within our health care system to light. As a representative from Tennessee, one of those vulnerabilities that is most concerning is the disparity of care in rural communities. Health insurance providers.
For quite some time, access to health care has been top of mind for residents in more bucolic areas. Reports of hospital closures and fewer options for care have dominated our headlines and lives for more than a decade. Now it is not uncommon for a patient living in a rural area to drive more than an hour for a routine checkup, and on average, they live 30 miles or more from the nearest hospital. In the face of a global health pandemic, this is simply not acceptable.
The health of rural populations lags behind that of our urban counterparts. The reality is that members of rural communities are older than their urban counterparts and more likely to suffer from heart disease, respiratory conditions and diabetes — all of which make COVID-19 even more deadly. And as the virus spreads more aggressively to rural parts of our country, our hospitals and care facilities are facing unusual challenges. There is no time better than the present to ensure rural communities can properly access the care that they need.
Insurance denial legislation would cripple hospitals
Unfortunately, however, some of Tennessee’s congressional representatives are playing politics in Washington and favoring insurance companies over our medical providers, which risks further complicating the COVID-19 crisis for the most rural parts of our state. Despite strong rhetoric claiming to support rural communities and our medical providers, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander plans to include surprise insurance denial legislation in the next COVID-19 stimulus package — even with medical providers opposed to this provision. This move would be counterproductive to another bill Alexander and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn introduced to help keep rural hospitals financially stable.
Term life insurance definition
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Alexander’s surprise billing legislation would quite simply cripple hospitals — especially in rural areas. By setting a federal benchmark rate, big insurers would not have to pay for patients' out-of-network care, leaving hospitals and doctors without fair compensation. At a time when every doctor is working on overdrive to care for the major influx of patients, this seems unfair. It would also disincentivize critical emergency services, further exacerbating the financial strain hospitals are facing, and it could lead to more rural closures.
Air ambulances providers endangered
Even further, Alexander’s legislation would almost certainly put many air ambulance providers out of business, which would be devastating for rural communities. Over the last several years, our rural areas -- in Tennessee and nationwide -- have become increasingly dependent on this mode of emergency transportation. With rural areas being so far from hospitals, air ambulances are a lifeline that help transport patients as critical care units when driving an hour or more to a medical facility could be the difference between life and death. And they have been, and will continue to be, vitally important as the country fights off the coronavirus. It's all the more puzzling why air medical services were left out of this new increase in payment for rural providers when so many rural communities are reliant on their service.
Tennesseans would be much better off if Alexander stopped catering to big insurers, who are seeing record profits, and focused on supporting his rural constituents. As the COVID-19 crisis continues, Tennessee hospitals and patients are more vulnerable than ever. I hope that Alexander will dismiss his surprise billing legislation and continue to work to support rural health care, helping maintain our strong, reliable health care system.
Janice Bowling is the state senator for Tennessee’s 16th District.