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'Rural health agenda' addresses TN hospital challenges, student loans, Sen. Blackburn says

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A trio of bipartisan bills making their way through Congress tries to address prevailing issues among rural hospitals in the U.S., including Tennessee.

Tennessee U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R) visited Chattanooga, Bradley County and Polk County on Friday to tout the plans, and she says she hopes to eventually visit all 95 counties in Tennessee.

Last month, we reported on a study from the Tennessee Healthcare Campaign that found more than 75 percent of Tennessee’s rural hospitals are at high risk of closure in the next few years. The study's authors concluded that the biggest problem in keeping rural hospitals open is that many of the patients are uninsured or unable to pay.

“The main thing I want to say is that rural hospitals are drowning under uncompensated care," Tennessee Healthcare Campaign spokeswoman Judy Roitman explained. "They are required to see patients who show up sick at their doors, but there’s too many people who have no insurance at all."

The bills Sen. Blackburn is sponsoring are aimed at addressing several health care challenges across rural America.

The Rural Health Innovation Act would establish a grant program allowing outpatient clinics that qualify for specific reimbursement under Medicare/Medicaid or rural health clinics to increase staffing, extend hours, acquire additional technology & equipment, & pay for construction costs.

The Rural America Health Corps Act would create a rural provider loan repayment program that covers a range of providers, including nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Practitioners would be eligible for a student loan repayment on a sliding scale. The act would also waive income tax liability for the loan repayment program.

The Save Rural Hospitals Act establishes an appropriate national minimum (.85) to the Medicare hospital area wage index, and ensure rural hospitals get fair payment for the care they provide.

Blackburn told us on Friday that some areas of Hamilton County would benefit from these bills.

'We're trying to push the legislation. Senator [Mark] Warner, Senator [Dick] Durbin and I have worked on these issues for, I guess this is year four,' Sen. Blackburn said.

Depend on us to keep you posted on these bills.

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Read more: Tennessee has highest rate of hospital closures per capita, what are the rural impacts?

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