Tribune Recorder Leader

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Rural Hospitals Need Support

By: Steve Barnett, President and CEO, McKenzie Health System

Eight minutes. That’s the typical amount of time it takes for an ambulance to arrive after you call 9-1-1 in a somewhat densely populated area in the United States. Even then, life threatening events are unpredictable, and eight minutes may not be fast enough.
What if you live in rural Michigan? Michiganders in the thumb region are used to commuting to the grocery store and to work, but long ambulance wait times can happen—and long wait times for ambulance services means a higher risk of serious complications or death for those patients.
Unfortunately, those longer wait times are not theoretical for our community. They can be reality, especially if ambulance crews are understaffed.
One reason it can take longer for ambulances to reach rural Michiganders in crisis is not because emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics don’t care, but rather there are not always enough people to staff every ambulance. Within the next five years, the current workforce shortage in the United States is projected to become worse. Healthcare industry staffing shortages have impacted every department in our hospital, and like other hospitals in our region, the list of openings is higher than we have seen in a number of years.
The value of having healthcare services available in our community cannot be overstated. In fiscal year 2022, McKenzie Health System saw 5,435 emergency room visits, 28,313 outpatient visits; and provided 2,645 ambulance runs. Imagine the impact it would have on the community if these services were not available locally. Some may decide not to seek care, others may travel with compromised outcomes because of timing, and everyone would be negatively impacted in terms of time and travel expenses. For individuals with low incomes, no paid time off from their jobs, physical limitations, acute conditions, or no personal transportation, these burdens can significantly affect their ability to access healthcare services.
Providing quality healthcare in a rural community goes beyond immediate healthcare services; it also plays a role in the economic health of a community. Like many other rural healthcare organizations, McKenzie Health System is one of the largest employers in the county with almost 300 employees. Healthcare services are also important to the community when it comes to attracting and retaining business and industry; and studies show that seniors are more likely to remain in a community when healthcare services are available.
Addressing the staffing shortages isn’t an easy task. Hospitals are stretched too thin amidst the pandemic and workers are leaving healthcare for a variety of reasons. Asking professionals to enter an industry with a dire lack of resources is no easy task; and rural healthcare organizations competing with larger healthcare systems becomes unaffordable.
With the serious lack of workers, healthcare services across the industry may be reduced. To compound the issue, the demand for higher wages by all members of the healthcare workforce are not being offset by higher payments for the services we provide. Hospitals can’t simply increase their prices like other industries can.
Hospitals have an immediate need for resources to continue providing the services residents need and deserve. A short-term solution to address the crisis, Michigan’s lawmakers have allocated a one-time appropriation for workforce recruitment and retention, an expansion of licensed, out-of-state providers, and one-time funding for expanded nursing degree programs at community colleges. Those solutions take years to impact a hospital’s daily resource needs. To truly make a difference in the retention of workers and minimize the shortage, more than one-time funding for long-term programs is needed.
Everyone can agree that lifesaving emergency medical care is a basic, accessible healthcare need for Michiganders, and residents should be able to receive specialized care no matter where they live. The only way to ensure that the healthcare needs of Michiganders are met is by addressing the workforce shortage and finding sustainable long-term solutions that strengthen the healthcare industry. I implore our lawmakers to make immediate investments in supporting our hospitals. Lives literally depend on it.

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