The Star-Herald

Protecting health care for rural Mainers

Your zip code shouldn’t determine your access to health care. But in rural Maine, emergency medical services are barely getting by while hospitals struggle to keep their doors open. If our goal as lawmakers is to make health care more affordable and more accessible, we need to take action now to support rural health care.

This session, I’ve introduced two bills to ensure those of us living in rural Maine have a place to go or call if we break our arm, or experience a health crisis that’s much, much worse. The first bill – LD 915, “An Act To Provide Adequate Reimbursement under MaineCare for Ambulance and Neonatal Transport Services”  – supports our rural ambulance providers.

Emergency ambulance services are a lifeline for people when they need help. They play a vital role in protecting the lives of newborns, seniors and those in urgent need of medical care. But I think these services are something that most people in this country, and even parts of this state, take for granted. It’s something they don’t have to think about every day because they know that in an emergency situation, they can count on calling 911 and an ambulance will show up.

My bill would ensure that emergency ambulance care is available to Mainers across the state by paying the ambulance services enough to stay afloat. I’m grateful to Fire Chief Scott Susi from the Caribou Fire and Ambulance Department for traveling all the way to Augusta to talk about the challenges facing rural providers and testify in favor of this bill. It makes a real difference when my colleagues at the State House hear firsthand from the people on the ground doing this work.

Quite frankly, what Chief Susi said is exactly right. Our first responders are always on watch and always ready to take action in our time of crisis. They don’t ask how much it will cost; they simply focus on saving lives. This bill is simple and will allow them to keep doing this important work.

Last week, this bill received unanimous, bipartisan support in the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. It will now move to the full legislature for more votes. I’m hopeful that we can come together to pass this bill into law.

The second bill – LD 1350, “An Act To Improve Rural Health Care” – aims to support rural hospitals, which are struggling all over the country.  In Maine, about 40 percent of rural hospitals are at risk of closing and have collectively lost $20 million in the past five years. While Medicaid expansion has helped provide some economic stability, we need to do more. My proposal addresses this issue head-on by investing in our rural hospitals and preserving our rural health clinics. The central component of the bill increases the reimbursement rate to rural hospitals to 100 percent. It ensures the state is adequately reimbursing rural hospitals for the cost of care.

Not only are rural hospitals critical for providing care, but they also employ hundreds of doctors and staff. For example, Cary Medical Center employs more than 500 Mainers. Hospitals also support many small businesses that depend on the economic activity a busy hospital generates.

The bill received a public hearing earlier this month before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee and faces additional work session. I’m particularly grateful to Kris Doody from Cary Medical Center and Peter J. Sirois from Northern Maine Medical Center for traveling to Augusta to testify in support of this bill.

Hospitals and emergency rooms spring to action during our worst nightmares and increase our odds of survival. By passing these two proposals this session, the Legislature has a chance to do right by the rural residents in this state. Rural Mainers deserve the same access to health care as everyone else. This is about our health, our economy and our lives.

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