Valley News – Federal funding helps ease a rural health care crisis in Vermont, but challenges remain


Published: 09/17/2022 23:19:56

Modified: 09/17/2022 23:19:16

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. – Vermont health care leaders and directors from four health organizations gathered Thursday to discuss rural health care and celebrate receiving $2.72 million in federal grants.

While these resources and the spirit of collaboration left panellists optimistic, all agreed: rural health care is in crisis.

“Our healthcare system is vulnerable and under extreme stress,” said Sarah Waring, Vermont and New Hampshire country director for USDA Rural Development. “We have evolved from an urgent emergency during the pandemic to a clear and enduring emergency, particularly when it comes to our workforce and business model.”

Of the financial windfall, $1 million will go to Springfield Hospital to help alleviate pandemic losses and upgrade infrastructure. $1 million will support an expansion of Little Rivers Health Care Clinic in Wells River; $637,000 to upgrade equipment at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital; and $88,000 will help fund improvements to the kitchen and food storage at Upper Valley Haven’s grocery aisle.

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The money comes from the US Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Rural Health Care Grant Program. In total, the grants will provide up to $475 million nationwide through the American Rescue Plan Act, of which $74 million was announced in August.

Vermont’s hospitals have relied on federal aid to stay afloat during the pandemic but are still financially impacted by the crisis and subsequent staff shortages and cost inflation.

The University of Vermont Medical Center and Rutland Regional Medical Center — the state’s two largest hospitals — both called for significant annual budget increases of 10% and 16%, respectively, for the coming year. The budget increases were approved, but the Green Mountain Care Board cut the amount that allows the University of Vermont Medical Center to increase its fees for commercial insurance carriers.

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You are not alone. Springfield Hospital, which was struggling financially before the pandemic, has requested a 7.5% increase, citing, among other things, increased costs related to traveling staff.

In a presentation to the Green Mountain Care Board in August, Springfield Hospital said it spent more than twice as much on traveling staff in 2022 compared to the previous year, which is expected to equal $4 million this year.

As part of its budget increase request, the hospital proposed a 39% increase in recruitment and advertising spending. At Thursday’s panel, Springfield Hospital CEO Robert Adcock said the hospital used marketing tools to hire a dedicated recruiter and create incentive programs to retain staff, both of which would reduce reliance on traveling staff.

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Panellists outlined three current crisis phases experienced during the pandemic: COVID-19 itself, related mental health issues, and later economic hardship. Brattleboro Memorial Hospital CEO Christopher Dougherty highlighted the pandemic-related “covered costs” that are now being added to hospital budgets. Things like door-to-door health screenings, increased personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing are all new costs to endure, he said.

Adcock told those present he expects a fourth to occur “when we see the long-term impact of untreated health issues” related to care being postponed or unavailable during the pandemic.

But that fourth crisis could be mitigated by this federal funding, according to Little Rivers Health Care CEO Andrew Barter.

“It allows us to have the infrastructure to provide those services,” he said. “The first antivirals we deployed were in a three-sided garage. Those funding bills for isolated exam rooms.”





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