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BRADFORD, Pa. — The Pennsylvania House Majority Policy Committee is planning a January hearing in Bradford to discuss rural health care challenges.
The committee chairman, Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint, said a hearing was held Dec. 1 at Penn State Health in Hershey to discuss rising demand for health care and providers struggling to maintain staffing levels.
“We are all one accident, injury or medical incident away from a trip to the hospital, and we take for granted the doctors, nurses and other professionals trained to help are there waiting for us,” Causer said. “While the professionalism and devotion of those providers remains strong, many health care facilities — including hospitals, nursing homes, long-term care facilities and home care providers — say they simply don’t have enough people available to properly meet patient needs. We need to look for ways to reverse this trend.”
Testifiers included nurses, hospital executives, representatives of health care and home care agencies. All expressed concern about the challenge of retaining current health care providers who are struggling with stress, burnout and other strains on their physical and mental health.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers also saw an increase in the number of nurses leaving facility jobs in favor of higher-paying traveler positions.
With the American Hospital Association estimating hospitals will need to hire at least 200,000 nurses a year to meet increased demand and replace retiring nurses, testifiers urged increasing the number of nursing school programs, offering financial aid programs for candidates and supporting new care models for patients.
Next month’s hearing, tentatively scheduled for Jan. 19 at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, will focus more on rural issues, including situations like the one being experienced in Bradford with the loss of acute care and surgical services at Bradford Regional Medical Center earlier this year.
“Rural health care facilities across the state are struggling to keep their doors open to meet the needs of their communities,” Causer said. “We need to identify solutions that will enable these vital health care services to remain available and accessible to our rural residents.”
The legislator said the hearing on Wednesday was focused more on urban and suburban issues, some of which are similar to what rural facilities are facing.
“Personnel is the main issue,” he said. “That’s the lifeblood of all the facilities.”
Rural health care has its own challenges, too.
“They naturally have less resources, they are covering bigger areas,” Causer said. “A hearing that is specifically focused around rural health care is important. Even before the pandemic there was a strain on rural facilities.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, testifiers talked about potential solutions.
“Some of the solutions mentioned in today’s hearing were using stimulus money the state has, focusing on recruitment and retention, focusing on more nursing programs in the state and encouraging more students to want to go in that field.”
An example given was a loan forgiveness program.
“It came up at our hearing today about cross-state licensure,” Causer said, referring to difficulties in border communities like Bradford where potential medical professionals may be licensed in Pennsylvania but not New York, or vice versa.
“We need to streamline those procedures,” he said. The state’s licensing process needs work, too.
“Over the last few years we have seen students come out of nursing programs and have to wait an extended period of time to get their licenses,” Causer said. “If they graduate from an accredited institution, they should be able to get that license immediately.”
Describing the coming hearing, the legislator said, “Where better to do it than Bradford? We’re one of the most rural parts of the state and we have a number of challenges here, like what’s going on at BRMC.”
Officials with Upper Allegheny Health System decided to restructure BRMC and Olean (N.Y.) General Hospital. Acute care and surgical services moved from Bradford to Olean, and all but 10 beds were removed as well. Many of the services that remain are outpatient centered.
Causer said the committee is working on putting the next hearing together, including a list of who will testify before the committee. He mentioned that UAHS officials will be invited, as will officials from its affiliate, Kaleida Health. Officials from UPMC Cole and Kane and Warren General Hospital will be invited as well.
“I’m looking forward to the discussion and looking at potential solutions,” he said. “Bringing other legislators to the area is beneficial. When I’m in Harrisburg talking about issues we’re facing, the legislators that have traveled here remember and can relate.”