By Callie Hietala
A bill seeking to explore the feasibility of reopening Patrick County’s hospital, which has been closed since 2017, has passed one major hurdle in Virginia’s General Assembly, with unanimous approval from the 22-member Health, Welfare, and Institutions (HWI) Committee.
The bill will now go before the Appropriations Committee, and residents are invited to support the measure.
During his presentation of the bill to HWI, Del. Wren Williams, R-Stuart, who sponsored the legislation, told committee members that since the hospital was shuttered in September 2017, “our nearest emergency room is now over 30 minutes from town in Martinsville or across the North Carolina line in Mount Airy.”
“In addition,” Williams said, “we live in a very rural area that covers over 500 square miles and we rely on the selfless volunteers in our fire and EMS departments to be the first responders in our community.”
As in many counties across the state, volunteerism has decreased, he said, “but in our area it’s decreased because the nearest ER (emergency room) is tough for people to leave work and travel to. Answering a quick call by taking a break from their day jobs to run a 20-minute transfer from a local nursing home or rehabilitation center for chest pain has now turned into a 4-hour journey to our neighboring localities. We continue to live day after day without a vital emergency services center in our community.”
The bill that was approved by the Health, Welfare and Institutions (HWI) Committee was a substitute for his original bill, which he altered after discussions with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) about the successful reopening of a hospital in Lee County, another small, rural county he described as “almost identical” to Patrick. That county’s hospital, like Patrick’s, provided acute critical care and had a critical access license.
“The original purpose of this bill was to work with the Virginia Department of Health to figure out the feasibility of working with the hospital that has been closed since 2017. This (substitute) bill, after discussions with VDH, models the Lee County situation, where they reopened their hospital utilizing resources from the Virginia Department of Health local board governing bodies, contracts with private firms, and an appropriations request, which I’ll be dealing with later,” Williams said.
Lee County “funded a feasibility study and after they funded it were able to work on obtaining federal grants and state funding,” he said. “I hope that we follow that same path that was provided by the Virginia Department of Health that has led to a successful reopening of a very small, very rural hospital like our own.”
The new text of HB 1305 allows the Patrick County Board of Supervisors “to enter into a contract for an investigation of the feasibility of reopening the Pioneer Community Hospital of Patrick County, in whole or in part, or establishing alternative locations in Patrick County and surrounding localities at which necessary health services may be provided.”
The previous version of the bill directed VDH to conduct the study itself, rather than allowing the county to enter into an agreement with a private contractor.
“The Virginia Department of Health was interested in doing this, but they also asked for resources for us to get it done,” Williams said, and added that the substitute bill “would allow us to actually fund a private contractor and the county would be the agent” instead of VDH, though the health department would still be involved.
Williams said he is asking for $85,000 for the studies which would explore not only the feasibility of reopening the current hospital entirely or partially, but would also identify four alternative locations in the community “that would allow us to do something such as a 24-hour Urgent Care or an emergency medical services center which would be focused on stabilizing patients.”
Williams noted that the county’s local dialysis center, which is currently vacant, as one possible alternate location.
“We’re really trying to make sure we have funding to explore all the options,” he said.
The project, Williams said, comes with a deadline. “We have to get this done in five years” in order to “make sure that we beat the 10-year deadline on our critical access license.”
That license would allow the hospital to receive a higher reimbursement rate from Medicare and Medicaid “because we are a rural locality. If we lose that, we will have a much harder fight in front of us and that’s why we started as soon as possible in the state legislation in order to get the ball rolling so we don’t run out of time,” Williams said.
He said the Lee County project took several years to complete, “so we are sort of right there at that timeline.”
Williams said the unanimous approval the bill earned in committee was a both a positive sign and an important one, demonstrating that it has bipartisan support. “When it hits the other committees, they’re going to see this is important to a lot of people and they’re going to look at it more favorably.”
However, that does not mean Williams expects smooth sailing the rest of the way for HB 1305.
“Funding is something that’s always contentious,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who’s on whose side because eventually what’s going to happen is the House budget is going to slam into the Senate budget and they’re going to have to make all the pieces work together.”
If the bill passes muster in the Appropriations Committee, it will then go before the full House for a vote, Williams said, “and then it will be part of the House legislation that will cross over to the Senate side, where we will have to fight through the Senate to make sure they understand how important this is.”
Williams said he likely will not know until about 24 hours before when the bill will be taken up by the Appropriations Committee, but he would “welcome and encourage anybody from Patrick County or any of the surrounding localities” who would like to speak in favor of the bill to sign up to speak either virtually or in-person.
“Just watch the appropriations agenda,” he said, which can be found on the state’s legislative information system website, lis.virginia.gov.
That website suggests the bill has been assigned to the Health & Human Resources subcommittee, which meets Tuesdays at 3:30 p.m.
When the bill goes before the committee, there is an option to sign up to speak virtually, Williams said. “If we have 100 people, they’ll give you 30 seconds (to speak), but at least 100 people came in support of this bill,” he said.
Meeting agendas for committees and subcommittees can be found by clicking “Virginia House of Delegates Meeting Schedule” under “Meeting Schedules” on the General Assembly’s website, virginiageneralassembly.gov.
Williams said anyone with questions about how to sign up to speak may contact his office for help. His staff can be reached by calling (804) 698-1009 or by email at DelWWilliams@house.virginia.gov.
“I’ve made it very clear that this is the number one funding issue for my locality,” Williams said. “I have impressed upon them that this is very, very important to the people of Patrick County and it must be funded.”