The issues facing health care providers - including adequate equipment and funding for rural hospitals - was the topic addressed before U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he visited three area hospitals on Monday.

McConnell was key in drafting and passing the CARES Act which helped fund hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic after elective surgeries and other services were suspended.

McConnell made brief appearances at Corbin's Baptist Health, Saint Joseph London and the Rockcastle Regional Hospital.

While in London, McConnell told those attending the invitation-only conference that the emergence of the coronavirus was virtually unknown at the beginning of 2020 and that many people neglected their health care or had services suspended due to the pandemic.

"We're like all of you - we're not certain on what to do," he said. "So we followed the advice of experts and shut the economy down. In February of this year, we had the best economy in our country in 50 years. Within two months, we look like we're in the middle of the Great Depression - on purpose - the decision made to deal with the health care crisis."

McConnell said the recovery from that economic devastation began with drafting the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security) that resulted in borrowing "about 3 trillion dollars."

"We now have a debt that shot our economy for the first time since World War II, but for this extraordinary economic and health care emergency, this $3 trillion sought to go after this problem in all different ways," McConnell said. "On the healthcare side, bringing it down to Kentucky, $12 billion came into our state for a variety of purposes, both on the health care and the economic side - this hospital about $20.3 million for this hospital alone. And the Medicaid settlement that the Governor and I worked on was about another $18.2 million for this hospital."

McConnell mentioned that the London-Corbin Airport also had received money, while the PPE program had 48,000 small businesses take advantage of the loans. He added that 48,000 people utilized $5.2 billion to prop up small businesses, and that if those businesses do what they are asked to do to recover from the economic crisis, they will not have to repay those loans.

"Now, where do we go from here?" he said, adding that starting next week the federal government will review the steps taken to look to the future.

"This is not over," he said of the coronavirus pandemic. "What we've been preaching and practicing in the U.S. Senate is to wear a mask. Even before the Governor's order, it somehow became political and I can assure you that the coronavirus is not political. It doesn't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat. But we've each got a responsibility to ourselves, our neighbors and our families to wear the mask. And regretfully it looks like this will go on for a while because we will never get this in the rearview mirror until we're on top of testing, treatment and ultimately, vaccine."

McConnell said the vaccines would be in massive doses, as the coronavirus is a global health care concern.

"In anticipation of the clinical trials being successful, we're already producing doses, not for just the United States but for the world because this is a worldwide problem," he said. "So for the indefinite future, wear your mask. Decorate it. Put your favorite sports team on there, change colors to fit your outfit. So for the foreseeable future, that's where we are."

McConnell's comments came after Saint Joseph London President John Yanes and Saint Joseph Health CEO Bruce Tassin addressed concerns regarding health care facilities.

Yanes recognized three Saint Joseph London staff for their outstanding efforts during the pandemic (see separate story) before thanking McConnell for the financial assistance to the hospital during the health care crisis.

"We appreciate the federal government's response and particularly your leadership in crafting and passing the bipartisan CARES Act. This helped us cover the cost of securing additional personal protective equipment and supplies, retaining our staff as we follow executive order to cease elective procedures and covering labor costs to be designated as a COVID testing site and covering other operating costs," Yanes said. "These federal funds have been critical to ensure we can continue to provide health care services and maintain the same level of quality of care for our community during the pandemic. Today we want to encourage patients not to delay needed care and to feel safe [...] to coming back to our facility.

"Lastly, I will say that no virus can weaken our call to serve," he continued. "This pandemic has drastically impacted and changed our lives. Nonetheless, our commitment to the health of our patients and our teams is stronger than ever. We are grateful to our community for trusting us with their care."

Bruce Tassin, CEO of Saint Joseph Health, also addressed those attending the meeting, stating that the pandemic restrictions on elective surgeries and other procedures has dropped the volume of patients by 43%, while the revenues for staff salaries and equipment has been "drastically reduced."

"During this unprecedented time, our focus has been on patient care and commitment to communities we serve," he said. "Needless to say, it has been challenging."

Tassin said the medical facilities took immediate action to operate efficiently during this time, although the federal monies given to rural hospitals provided the financial relief desperately needed kept those facilities operating during the pandemic.

"Significant financial relief from the federal government has helped stabilize the front lines of health care response to COVID-19," Tassin said. "Senator McConnell, thank you for your swift passage of the CARES Act, [it] has helped us recover some of our losses over the past few months."

Tassin said while hospitals are recovering from their losses due to the pandemic, he urged McConnell to consider loan forgiveness and policy changes to ensure that health care facilities can continue to operate effectively as the pandemic continues.

"Please consider providing loan forgiveness to Medicare accelerated payments and robust liability protection for medical facilities and frontline providers treating care for these patients," he added. "We urge Congress to make permanent and temporary wages for tele-health, we advocate for policies that will address health care disparities that have been eliminated during the pandemic and support people in poverty."

Tassin said he appreciated the efforts made thus far in COVID testing and urged funding for rapid test kits, which is one of "the biggest challenges yet."

njohnson@sentinel-echo.com

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