Op-Ed | Rural Healthcare
By Chris Clark, President & CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce
My grandmother Evelyn clocked in at 4’11” tall and weighed all of 85 pounds, but make no mistake, she was a force of nature. At the onset of World War II, she was 17, adopted, and living in our small hometown of Fitzgerald, Georgia. She tried to enlist, but because of her height, she was passed over. Determined to matter and serve, she bused off to nursing school but graduated as the War ended. She returned home and worked her way through nursing jobs until she became the feisty Administrator of Irwin County Hospital in Ocilla.
I remember as a child walking into her office which seemed so large and impressive. She commanded the nurses, ordered the doctors, directed the staff, helped the patients, and anything else that needed to be done to make a small-town rural hospital succeed. She did that not for the pay, nor the glory, but for her friends and neighbors. Farmers, day laborers, teachers, firemen, and garage owners like my uncle all benefited from that little hospital.
I visited my friends in that hospital. I saw my Papa for the last time in those halls. I sat with aunts and uncles over the years in the attached nursing home. We drove a kid with a broken arm after baseball to the ER and even snuck in Thanksgiving turkey for family. The fabric of that community, of any community, is tightly woven to the availability of healthcare.
All the while, she was arguing with doctors, inspiring nurses, taking care of our neighbors, and also managing an ever-growing volume of regulations and paperwork in the midst of fighting for every dollar to keep it afloat. Things haven’t changed much, but because of her hard work and the dedication of countless leaders and employees, that hospital is still going strong. It’s still the hub of activity in Ocilla.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of numerous other rural hospitals around Georgia. Over the last decade, I’ve visited a dozen healthcare facilities now closed. I’ve watched county commissioners, volunteer boards, private saviors, doctors, and car dealers give their own time and treasure to keep their hospitals afloat. Some have succeeded, but many have failed. When they fail, they not only lose the health safety net for thousands of neighbors, but they also lose one of the critical infrastructure assets for long-term economic development and mobility.
There’s little that local or statewide economic developers can do to recruit new companies to your town if there’s no healthcare infrastructure in place, but in the last three years progress and innovation have started to help.
Georgia hospitals, doctors, and insurance providers have all worked to streamline, innovate, and cut costs for patients and we’ve seen local government officials invest in their healthcare infrastructure.
At the state level, House Speaker David Ralston led with a visionary effort to create micro-hospitals by changing outdated mandates. These smaller healthcare outposts provide immediate care, stabilization, and access to larger regional providers.
Another Georgia innovation is garnering attention nationwide. In 2016, then Representative, now Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan tackled the rural healthcare issue head-on with a new tax credit. The HEART rural hospital tax credit program allows any Georgia taxpayer to contribute to a qualified rural hospital in exchange for a 100% state income tax credit. This year, Georgians have invested in those credits to the tune of $38 million, greatly benefiting 58 eligible rural hospitals throughout the state. I’ve been told by at least five hospital administrators that they’re open today because of those credits.
However, there are still credits available under the $60 million cap and these rural hospitals still need your support. I want to encourage all companies in our state to reach out and take advantage of this incredibly important program before the end of the year. The process to apply for the 2019 HEART tax credit is simple and can be done online in under a minute. To learn more, reach out to my friends at www.georgiaheart.org.
Most recently, Governor Brian Kemp announced the 1115 and 1332 ACA waiver proposals, which will effectively decrease the number of uninsured citizens, assist our hospitals in need, and reduce private health insurance premiums for Georgians. We commend Governor Kemp for this bold first step focused on innovation, compromise, and financial soundness to address the healthcare needs of our state especially in rural areas and for small business.
The Georgia Chamber is also engaged in finding innovative solutions. In 2019, we launched the Georgia Chamber SMART Plan with Anthem, Inc. to provide healthcare insurance for companies with two to 50 employees at significant savings. We’re proud that this plan has been embraced by small businesses across the state and you can learn more at www.gachamber.com/smart.
I’m sure my Grandmother would be amazed at today’s health and wellness industry, and I’m sure she’d agree that only by working together as business, government, and providers can we ensure that patients and families across our great state have access to the kind of quality healthcare that she provided all those years ago in Irwin County.