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Keller speaks on legislation, funding for rural hospitals

LOCK HAVEN — “UPMC does a great job and we are very fortunate here in rural Pennsylvania to have such quality healthcare,” Congressman Fred Keller said in a round table discussion of healthcare legislation, funding and local UPMC successes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

He was joined by UPMC Lock Haven and Muncy President, Ron Reynolds, Bobbie Woolcock, regional director of nursing operations for UPMC Senior Communities, and Dan Glunk, MD, FACP, vice president and chief quality officer, UPMC in the Susquehanna Region.

UPMC had to shut down all non-emergency procedures for a period of time during the pandemic, and legislation like paycheck protection, funding for ramping up testing and funding for healthcare systems in general to start up programs like telemedicine, have been extremely beneficial to local and rural healthcare systems, officials said.

Keller said he will continue to advocate for paycheck protection and funding for healthcare providers, including Medicare Reimbursement grants for hospitals through the Rural Health Act.

Keller described the act as one that was “designed to bring equity to the reimbursement rates for Medicare services” essentially making sure that hospitals in rural areas are getting the same amount of benefit that hospitals in urban areas are getting.

“It is absolutely amazing and vital that this hospital stay open, particularly for emergency services,” Reynolds said.

He added that, on average, UPMC Lock Haven will see approximately 11,500 emergency patients a year.

During the pandemic, UPMC Lock Haven has also not had to furlough any employee, and maintained zero positive COVID-19 patients in their nursing and long-term care facilities.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Reynolds said.

“It is discipline and vigilance,” Woolcock added. “It is infection control management, but also monitoring of the patients and making sure that everyone is careful.”

She added that these facilities have been “very quick to test residents” to ensure the safety of the communities by starting universal masking, increased use of personal protective equipment and mitigation measures early on in the pandemic.

In terms of testing, UPMC, like other local healthcare systems, has seen its fair share of shortages, and even has had to 3D print swabs for testing.

“We have had to prioritize every test,” Glunk said. “There are instances from a public health standpoint where you want to test someone but they are completely asymptomatic and you just don’t have the capacity to do that.”

He also said that of over 30,000 asymptomatic people that were tested for preprocedural reasons, less than one percent have come back positive.

Telemedicine and local volunteer EMTs on the other hand have made health easy and accessible not only to the most vulnerable and aging population, but to those who can’t make it into the hospital.

“Telemedicine has a huge benefit with being able to see people and talk to people without having them come into the facility,” Keller said.

He added that Congress is looking into extending telemedicine to be able to be of regular use in hospital systems in the state.

“We are taking a look at what we need to do to build the networks so that people all across rural America have the ability to communicate,” he added.

“The adoption of telehealth was integral to the successes,” Woolcock said. “…To be seen and still maintain relationships with the physicians while keeping residents safe was really huge.”

With the technology provided through funding and through their facilities, communication has also been able to flourish between family members with video calls, porch visits, and more.

She said that this isolation can be a detriment to a resident’s mental and emotional health, and that the technology and virtual communication has been imperative during this time.

UPMC has also been working with local paramedics and EMTs to create a program to administer testing for more on-call situations for those who cannot come directly into testing centers.

“I am proud of that program,” Glunk said. “It gave us a way to connect with patients and make sure they got through their illness the same way you would if you were to come to the hospital. It also gave us an idea of what was happening in our communities.”

Keller intends to relay information from the discussion to Congress and continue to provide guidance and information for hospital systems.

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