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GUEST COLUMN

Keep community hospitals front and center during pandemic

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greenfield theresa 20-03-09s

Theresa Greenfield

Like many of you, my parents live in a rural area and drive half an hour to shop for groceries, go to church and see a doctor. If a single community hospital closes in Iowa, too many folks like them will have to drive hours or, even worse, go without the care they need.

We cannot let our rural communities be left behind as we fight this pandemic.

As a candidate for U.S. Senate and businesswoman, health care is the number one issue I hear about. And as a proud farm kid, it’s a fight I carry in my heart. Every Iowan should have access to high-quality, affordable health care.

The growing threat of coronavirus makes that even harder, especially in rural Iowa communities, where we already face extra health-care and economic challenges. It’s good Washington finally did something last week, but I’m frustrated — their action was overdue, not focused enough on the working families that need help the most, and there’s still much more to do.

Before that legislation passed, I put out my own “Jobs that Need to Get Done” plan to put Iowans first while combating COVID-19. When I was growing up on my family farm, my dad always said, “There are no boy jobs or girl jobs — just jobs that need to get done.” That’s never been more true.

My plan includes key steps Washington still needs to take, like rapidly ramping up access to free testing kits, ventilators, face masks and gloves. There are too many stories like that of my friend’s daughter, who is a nurse. She has been working throughout this pandemic, but she and many other brave health-care workers have been forced to reuse their personal protective equipment.

We need to increase the number of rural hospital beds. One report showed there are fewer than 600 ICU beds in Iowa and dozens of counties with none at all. The federal government lifted the restriction on Critical Access Hospital beds, but it’s not enough. We must coordinate with our military to build temporary hospitals and increase capacity where we have gaps, so rural Iowans still have access to critical care if current hospitals become full.

And instead of the $170 billion in federal stimulus that went toward tax giveaways to wealthy investors, we should boost resources for our community hospitals and make investments that will benefit them for years to come. Let’s further prioritize telehealth services and invest in high-speed rural broadband so it’s available in every county.

We also need to protect and strengthen Medicaid. Before this pandemic, nearly 18 percent of Iowa’s rural hospitals were at high risk of closure. Medicaid expansion has been a lifeline, but it is under threat from an ongoing federal lawsuit that may eliminate it altogether.

I’m disappointed that instead of fighting for our care, Sen. Joni Ernst has voted repeatedly to dismantle Medicaid expansion and backed earlier versions of the federal stimulus with little to no help for hospitals and even less accountability for taxpayers.

I’ll always fight to put the health, financial security and dignity of our workers first — not corporate CEOs. That includes strengthening existing health-care protections by creating a public option and allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

To get through this public health crisis, we also need more help for small businesses, additional payments that go directly to workers and expanded paid sick leave.

This may seem like an uphill battle. But Iowans are resilient, and I know we can get through this if we put politics aside and keep looking out for each other the same way we do in our small towns.

After my first husband died, I was a 24-year-old widow with a 13-month-old child and another one on the way. It was Social Security survivor benefits, along with friends, family and community, that helped me get back on my feet.

I’ve seen that same resilience when I visited rural community health centers in central and northwestern Iowa. They provide vital care and are major employers. Their continued existence is crucial to the future of many Iowa communities.

Until this pandemic is over and every day after, we need to do everything we can to protect and expand rural health care, while looking out for our neighbors who rely on our local hospitals and the workers who keep them running.

Theresa Greenfield, a Des Moines businesswoman, is a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Iowa.

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