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Rural health panel backs changes at struggling Georgia hospitals
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ATLANTA — A panel studying Georgia's rural health issues on Monday recommended a pilot program pairing four hospitals with other providers in their area, creating a "hub and spoke" model aimed at cutting down on expensive emergency room visits to struggling hospitals.

Members of the Rural Hospital Stabilization Committee said in their report that four rural facilities have closed in recent months and 15 are financially fragile — including six operating on a "day-to-day basis."

Gov. Nathan Deal formed the 15-member commission in March and charged them with finding a way to help rural hospitals struggling to keep their doors open.

Committee members recommended leaning on other health care providers in rural communities, including health centers, school and nursing home-telemedicine programs, and local physicians. Those options would act as "spokes" to four "hub" hospitals: Union General in Blairsville, Appling Health System in Baxley, Crisp Regional in Cordele and Emanuel Medical Center in Swainsboro.

"Just as a medical emergency can't wait, neither can we wait to act upon these recommendations," Deal said in a statement. "It is my hope that these efforts are not a temporary fix, but rather the beginning of a long-lasting road to recovery for our rural health systems."

According to the report, rural hospitals' emergency rooms too often see patients with congestive heart failure or chronic disease. The model would encourage the use of technology to monitor patients and cut down on frequent emergency room visitors.

But the plan will take upgrades at the four hospitals and buy-in from local officials, along with the State Health Benefit Plan.

Deal says the state budget will include $3 million to the Department of Community Health to implement the plan.

At the same time he formed the commission, Deal allowed rural hospitals to scale back and reopen as freestanding emergency rooms. As of December, none had used the option.

Committee members said in their report that stand-alone emergency departments "are not financially viable."

"National trend data also shows most of these being developed in wealthier, suburban areas as opposed to rural areas. ... However, Georgia has virtually no rural hospitals in counties capable of supporting an ED without outside subsidies," the report reads.


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