Durbin, Hospital Leaders Discuss Initiatives to Address Rural Health Care Challenges

SPRINGFIELD – U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today held a virtual press conference with rural health leaders in Illinois to discuss efforts to protect the future of rural hospitals and address critical shortages in the health workforce, including highlighting new funding he secured in the American Rescue Plan for health care providers. Durbin was joined by the CEOs of hospitals in Macomb and Eldorado, Illinois.

Small hospitals are the backbone of rural communities, and often the largest employers, yet more than 120 rural hospitals have closed nationwide in the past decade, with many more hospitals operating with negative margins. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these financial challenges facing rural hospitals—with increased costs for personal protective equipment and testing supplies, and a reduction in outpatient and elective procedures that typically account for three-quarters of hospital revenue.

“Across Illinois, rural hospitals are the heart and soul of their communities, providing essential access points to health care and anchoring the local economy. Yet, many grapple with financial vulnerabilities that have only increased during the pandemic,” Durbin said. “That’s why I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation to tackle rural health challenges, including providing more support for small hospitals and increased investments that will bring more doctors and nurses to underserved areas of our state.”

Last month, Durbin reintroduced the bipartisan Rural Hospital Closure Relief Act, which would support financially vulnerable rural hospitals facing risk of closure. The legislation would update Medicare’s Critical Access Hospital (CAH) designation so more rural hospitals can qualify for this financial lifeline and continue to serve their communities with quality, affordable health care services. Specifically, the Rural Hospital Closure Relief Act would provide flexibility around the 35-mile distance requirement for CAH eligibility, an authority that expired in 2006. Durbin’s bill would re-open this financial lifeline for certain rural hospitals that serve a low-income community, are located in a health professional shortage area, and that have operated with negative margins for multiple years.  There are currently 51 Critical Access Hospitals in Illinois, and several rural hospitals in Illinois would newly qualify under this legislation for increased Medicare payments and stabilization.

Durbin has also worked to address critical health workforce shortages seen in many rural communities. Across Illinois, 3.3 million people live in communities with shortages of doctors, five million people live in communities with shortages of mental health professionals, and 2.3 million people live in communities with shortages of dentists.

Durbin successfully included provisions in the American Rescue Plan to provide $1 billion in scholarship and loan repayment funding for the National Health Service Corps and Nurse Corps. These provisions would support approximately 23,000 health providers—and represents the largest single-year appropriation to our health workforce in history.

Today, Durbin also discussed his bipartisan Rural America Health Corps Act which would enhance recruitment and retention of health providers in rural areas by providing increased loan repayment funding for a longer time period through the National Health Service Corps.  The National Health Service Corps and Nurse Corps programs address workforce shortages and health disparities by enticing promising students from diverse backgrounds into health careers in underserved communities by providing scholarship and loan repayment funding in exchange for a service commitment in an urban or rural area.  Hundreds of health providers with the National Health Service Corps and Nurse Corps serve in community health centers and hospitals across Illinois.