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Bill would provide more funding for rural hospitals

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small has introduced legislation that would give additional funding to health care providers struggling to keep their doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Save Our Rural Health Providers Act would require 20% of the $100 billion left unobligated from the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act be set aside for rural health care providers. Congress provided $175 billion for the relief fund.

“I’m really glad in the first $75 billion, the administration has generally obligated about 20% to rural health care providers, and I want to make sure that the same thing happens with the remainder of the money,” Torres Small, D-N.M., told the Journal in a phone interview.

“They (health care providers) often struggle to keep their doors open even in the best of times,” she said. “That’s why I’ve introduced this legislation.”

She said a record number of rural hospitals closed nationally in 2019, “and 2020 is already on pace to surpass that.”

According to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina, 18 rural hospitals closed last year, and 12 have closed this year. There have been 172 rural closures since the center started keeping track.

“Rural clinics and hospitals have had to limit other services in order to maintain personal protective equipment and try to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Torres Small said.

She said doctors and nurses have been laid off in New Mexico “because they couldn’t provide the services they needed in order to keep those positions funded.”

Torres Small said she has talked to clinic directors who have had to shut down entire departments because of falling revenue and said rural hospitals around the country are having to file for bankruptcy to stay open. Funding has been used so far by health care providers for operating costs and expenses related to COVID-19 care, she said..

Torres Small is confident the legislation will move through Congress quickly.

“We’re working on it,” she said. “A lot of effort goes into building a strong coalition of Republicans and Democrats and getting it moving.”

Torres Small teamed with Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., to introduce the bill in the House. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is the sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate.

PAYCHECK PROGRAM FIX: Legislation to improve the Paycheck Protection Program was signed by President Donald Trump on Friday after passing the Senate.

“New Mexico’s small businesses now have the flexibility they need to help keep their doors open and staff employed as we continue the work to rebuild our economy,” Torres Small said.

The bill passed the House two weeks ago.

The Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act will extend forgiveness for expenses from eight weeks to 24 weeks and will extend the hiring deadline.

It will increase the limitation on nonpayroll expenses such as rent and utilities from 25% to 40%, extend the program from June 30 to Dec. 31, and extend loan terms from two to five years.

“Our local businesses are relying on us to help them weather the economic impacts of this public health emergency, but there were issues in the Paycheck Protection Program that blocked them from getting the help they need,” Rep. Deb. Haaland, D-N.M., said in a news release.

In New Mexico, 20,431 PPP loans have been processed and approved, totaling about $2.2 billion, Torres Small’s office said.

“There’s still funding available for small businesses that need help,” Torres Small said.

Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com

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