Texas rural hospital grant is welcome, but the struggle continues

It’s never been easy to deliver quality health care to rural communities. Staffing shortages, complex insurance systems and higher operating costs are just a few of the challenges rural health care providers face.

To help address them, Texas has earmarked $17 million in grant funding for rural hospitals statewide. The program is a good step, but there are larger problems in our health care system at play.

The Rural Hospital Financial Stabilization Grant will provide between $100,000 and $375,000 over two years to certain hospitals, according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. Rural hospitals must have 25 beds or fewer and demonstrate financial need to qualify, among other requirements, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a lot of dollars, but it will deliver vital resources that can make a big difference, especially for hospitals struggling the most, said Quang Ngo, vice president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.

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Most of the money will likely be used for operational costs, Ngo said, but it can also be used to cover existing debt, support capital improvements and fund equipment purchase or rental. That level of flexibility is good, allowing hospitals to make decisions based on their specific needs.

The pandemic reminded the whole country of how important rural health care is. In a way, all the attention was a blessing, bringing a stream of federal aid dollars that largely put the crisis on hold. But as the pandemic has dried up, so has that funding.

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Ngo said that many of the pre-pandemic challenges rural health care faced never went away, and the needs may be even greater going forward. That’s a concern this Editorial Board shares. A February study from health care consulting company Chartis contains some scary statistics.

Around half of America’s rural hospitals are operating in the red, according to Chartis’ study, and around 20% of them are vulnerable to closure.

Although Texas doesn’t have the highest percentage of rural hospitals in danger of closing, it does have the highest number overall at 45, according to Chartis. The state also leads the nation in overall rural hospital closures at 26 since 2010, according to TORCH.

But the challenges don’t end at hospital closures. The loss of other important services continues to widen health care gaps. Texas took the third spot by numbers overall for loss of rural hospital maternal care between 2011 and 2021, and the top spot for loss of chemotherapy in rural hospitals between 2014 and 2022, according to Chartis.

Many rural Texans must drive long distances to get the care they need when they should be able to at least get the basics within their communities. They deserve the same quality of health care service their urban and suburban counterparts have access to. Finding ways to deliver it will be necessary for the state’s future.

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