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Bipartisan health bill introduced

Updated:
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House and Senate is being touted as a way to aid rural hospitals.

U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., is a co-sponsor of the HealthCare Access and Rural Equality Act of 2000.

The bill would boost Medicare payments to rural hospitals and set up a permanent program to protect hospitals that serve mostly Medicare patients.

Lucas said large Medicare patient loads are common among rural hospitals, including those in Oklahoma.

A temporary program was implemented in 1989 to protect hospitals with a high proportion of Medicare patients. The act makes the program permanent.

Oklahoma has 16 Medicare-dependent hospitals, which have less than 100 beds and at least 60 percent Medicare patients.

A study by the Oklahoma Hospital Association projects that 23 mostly rural Oklahoma hospitals may have to close in five years without help.

Lucas said the improvements offered by the bill would help solvef inancial problems at rural hospitals.

He said if his hometown hospital closed the nearest one would be 45 minutes away.

"That's an incredible distance to travel when you have a life-threatening emergency," Lucas told The Daily Oklahoman's Washington bureau.

Lucas said hospitals often are the economic center for rural towns.

Some hospitals have survived by scaling down to what are called "critical-access hospitals." A federal program that began in September gave Oklahoma $678,000 for these hospitals.

To qualify for money, hospitals must operate no more than 15 patient beds, be at least 35 miles from the nearest hospital, keep patients for four days at most and offer emergency medical services.

The hospitals get federal reimbursements for services, although payments for lab services were reduced last year.

Senate author Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said too many disparities can be found between the amount of money rural hospitals receive for Medicare reimbursements compared with urban hospitals.

"You can't lose 70 to 80 percent of your money on patients and still survive," Conrad said.
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