Durbin Delivers Remarks at American Hospital Association Annual Meeting

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) today delivered remarks at the American Hospital Association (AHA) Annual Meeting.  In his speech, Durbin thanked the health care workers in attendance for tirelessly caring for their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic while putting their own health and safety on the line.  Durbin acknowledged the workforce shortages of critical hospital personnel that place extra stress on those in the medical field, and exacerbate challenges forpatients in accessing quality care.  In response to the critical shortage of health care workers, Durbin has introduced bipartisan legislation, including the Nurse Faculty Shortage Reduction Act and the Restoring America’s Health Care Workforce and Readiness Act.

Durbin also highlighted his Chicago HEAL Initiative, a collaboration among the ten largest hospitals serving Chicago to address the root causes of gun violence through economic, health, and community projects in 18 of Chicago’s neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence, poverty, and health disparities.  Durbin thanked the Illinois Health and Hospital Association (IHA) for their efforts in supporting the program.

Following his speech, Durbin also fielded questions from Jim Prister, President and CEO of RML Specialty Hospital, about bolstering the health care workforce and improving access to health care for those living in rural areas.

After leaving the stage, Durbin met with the President and CEO of IHA, AJ Wihelmi, as well as hospital leaders and representatives from across Illinois.  During their meeting, Durbin and IHA members discussed lowering prescription prices, financial pressures facing hospitals, and workforce and staffing issues.

Photos of the event can be found here.

Durbin’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin Remarks at American Hospital Association Annual Meeting

April 16, 2024

As prepared for delivery

Thank you, Jim, for the introduction.  Good morning, everyone.  It is a pleasure to be here.

Let’s rewind to four years ago.  A novel virus, COVID-19, relegated us to our homes and shut down our country.  While a vaccine was being developed, half-a-million Americans died.  

And amidst the fear and panic, the President at the time was spreading falsehoods, encouraging hateful rhetoric, and casting doubt on our medical experts.

But it was our health care infrastructure—our doctors, nurses, and front-line workers—who risked their lives to safeguard ours.

A silver lining of that devastating pandemic was the appreciation it showed us for our medical professionals and our hospitals.  We could not have gotten through the pandemic without them.

Because the reality is that our hospitals are not just physical spaces for treatment.  You are anchors of our communities. 

This comes with the responsibility of serving your community reliably and faithfully, but it also provides you with an opportunity to strengthen your neighborhoods and keep people healthy. 

Right now, our hospitals and health care system face severe challenges that impact their ability to serve Americans.

We are at a crossroads, with some questioning how our hospitals fit into the new reality of health care access.

In rural communities nationwide, hospitals are struggling.  Half operate in the red, and more than 300 are at “immediate risk” of closure.

That is why last spring, I introduced the Rural Hospital Closure Relief Act with Senator James Lankford, which would support financially vulnerable rural hospitals by helping them convert to “Critical Access Hospital” status.

Right now, if you are 34 miles away from the nearest hospital, you cannot qualify for this financial lifeline. 

We think this strict federal limit does not account for the true value and characteristics of what a rural hospital means for its community. 

Why is this important?  Let me share a short story.  

In Watseka, Illinois, there is a hospital called Iroquois Memorial.  It opened its doors in 1916, and today has 425 employees and serves 75,000 patients.  For many in the region, Iroquois Memorial Hospital is the closest medical provider.

But the hospital was struggling financially, threatening its ability to serve its community.

So, last August, I helped Iroquois Memorial Hospital become approved for Critical Access status.

The leadership and community told me that this designation helped save the hospital, allowing it to stabilize financially and remain a critical health resource.

I know the AHA supports expanding this eligibility for rural hospitals facing closure risk.  Our bipartisan bill is the most viable way to do so.  We’d love your support.

But that’s not the only challenge facing our hospitals.  The number one issue I hear?  Workforce shortages.

Over the next decade, we face a shortfall of 120,000 doctors.  And a survey found that 100,000 nurses left the field during the pandemic, and another 800,000 plan to retire soon.

With not enough health care providers available, patients suffer.  And medical professionals face increased stress and pressure.

In Congress, there are several things we can do to help.

First, I am working with Senator Lisa Murkowski to address our nation’s nursing shortage with legislation that would address the pay gap between clinical and faculty nursing jobs … and incentivize more nurses to pursue teaching roles. 

Second, there is a program called the National Health Service Corps.  It provides scholarship and loan repayment to medical providers who work in rural and urban areas of need.

Nationwide, there are 20,000 professionals serving under this program, treating 21 million patients.

Senator Marco Rubio and I have a bipartisan measure to extend the National Health Service Corps and nearly triple its funding level. 

It would address the shortage of doctors, nurses, and dentists—of which our nation faces a particular shortage.

Third is simple: more medical residency slots.  Congress invested in 1,250 additional Medicare-funded training slots in recent years, but we need to do much, much more.

While our hospitals are world-class centers of healing and treatment, it is becoming increasingly apparent that they also are anchors for the community.

Hospitals are some of the largest employers in town, and have the trust and reputation to propel change.  We have a national example of this underway in Chicago.

In 2018, I brought together the CEOs of the 10 largest hospitals serving Chicago to hear what they were doing outside of their walls to address the root causes of gun violence.

They were all saying similar things, and so we came up with a plan: 16 commitments of how to better engage the community.

One of the CEOs told me, “Senator, this is the first time we’ve all sat down at a table together … we’re normally competitors.”

There are two people here today that I want to acknowledge who have played an essential role on this project: AJ Wilhelmi, head of the Illinois Health & Hospital Association, and Gene Woods, head of Advocate Health.

We are now in our fifth year of the effort, with amazing results. 

Last year, these 10 hospitals operated 24 school- and mobile-health clinics, serving more than 11,000 Chicago Public School students.

And they hired more than 5,300 staff from the South and West Side zip codes facing the highest rates of poverty and violence.

And last year alone, the hospitals provided 3,600 local students with shadowing programs to build the pipeline of health workers.

I have supported them with millions of dollars in earmark funding, as well as identifying new federal opportunities, but this has been a real hospital-led project. 

And we are now in the process of creating the first gun violence registry in the country, to share hospital data so we can better identify trends, risks, and intervene with professional help.

This is not just a model for gun violence.  HEAL also provided a framework for collaboration on COVID and measles response.

Hospitals are making positive impacts on their communities outside of their role of providing traditional medical care. 

So, for those skeptical about hospitals fulfilling their mission to the community, I would point to initiatives like HEAL.

But, that also is not a blank check to operate your hospital like an investment fund.  There are benefits that hospitals enjoy, so long as they fulfill their responsibility to their patients and staff. 

To close, I would like to bring you back to 2018.  Chicago was seeing a spike in gun violence.  In response, the community demanded a new Level 1 trauma center on the South Side, and UChicago listened.

Over the past five years, that UChicago Medicine Trauma Center has treated 8,000 gunshot victims.

But they are doing so much more than mending physical wounds.  They are leading the country in trauma recovery programs and hospital-based violence interventions.

Listen to this:  Whereas 50 percent of gun violence victims are likely to return to the hospital with a similar injury within five years, UChicago pairs victims with counselors to address their trauma and help them heal.  Their re-injury rate?  Only two percent.  

Hospitals help heal physical injuries… but when they offer services and create partnerships that go above and beyond their traditional purview… they can help heal entire communities.

And I stand ready to help hospitals seeking to fulfill that potential in any way I can.

Thanks for all you do in our communities.  I am glad to be a partner in this work.