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Iowa lawmakers work to save rural hospitals 

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Mark Moran

(Iowa News Service) The Iowa Senate has approved a measure allowing some medical facilities to be licensed as "emergency hospitals." This would be especially important in rural areas facing a critical-care shortage.

Senate File 75 would allow some Iowa hospitals to be given a Rural Emergency Hospital designation, which could keep many of them open. Although it might seem unusual for a hospital to reduce services to increase patient care, this designation would require some to discontinue inpatient care in exchange for offering outpatient services and a 24/7 emergency room.

Sen. Jeff Reichmann, R-Montrose, said access to round-the-clock care services is increasingly vital.

"Rural Emergency Hospitals will help rural communities that need health-care services, stabilize hospitals that may be struggling in rural areas, and help ensure that essential needs for Iowas, and specifically for us in Lee County, are met," he said.

Under the Rural Emergency Hospital designation, the facilities would get higher Medicare reimbursement rates and additional monthly federal payments in exchange for forgoing inpatient care. So far, the bill has faced token opposition from one senator who pointed out that it won't help urban hospitals. 

The Iowa Hospital Association said 140 hospitals have closed nationwide in the last decade, including one in Iowa.

If the Senate bill becomes law, said Sen. Martin Graber, R-Fort Madison, it would be a big part of making sure that more rural hospitals don't face the same fate. 

"There aren't very many times that you and I get the opportunity to vote on a bill that could mean life or death to people," he said. "This one does that, OK? When it's fully implemented, it'll make a difference."

Rural Emergency Hospital designation, and the Medicare reimbursements and payments that go with it, would also be available to rural surgical centers that provide outpatient services. The bill heads next to the Iowa House.