Health & Medicine

As rural hospitals and health care struggle, California hospitals are fighting back

Sutter Amador Hospital in Jackson, Amador County, received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand its local residency program. Jackson is one of many rural areas with limited access to healthcare services.
Sutter Amador Hospital in Jackson, Amador County, received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand its local residency program. Jackson is one of many rural areas with limited access to healthcare services. www.angier-fox.com

For the past three decades, the number of hospitals in American rural areas has been declining at a steep pace. Among California’s 50 rural hospitals, four are at high risk of closing. Twenty have shut down since 1995, experts say.

On Thursday, the federal Department of Health and Human Services attempted to stop the bleeding with a $20 million grant, distributed across 21 states.

California hospitals received $1.5 million. Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley and Sutter Amador Hospital in Jackson each received $750,000 in Rural Residency Planning and Development Program grants to spend over a three-year period.

“Promoting the health of rural America is one of the Trump Administration’s healthcare priorities,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a news release. “Supporting the training of healthcare providers in rural areas through grants like these is a key way to help expand rural access to care, and is part of an overall effort to support rural healthcare in sustainable, innovative, and flexible ways.”

A city of over 25,000 people, Grass Valley has been the greatest area of concern in Nevada County since 2016. The city consistently has one of the highest mortality rates in the county and ranked in the top 20 percent in the national Community Healthy Vulnerability Index, according to this year’s community health report.

The latest assessment of Amador County also included Jackson in its list of communities of concern. Veterans and residents of Hispanic/Latino origin – particularly undocumented immigrants – are most at risk and experience consistent health disparities.

The RRPD grants focus on closing the health care access gap between these rural communities and their metropolitan counterparts. Sutter will use the funds to expand its Family Medicine Residency Program to Jackson, making space for six additional physicians, according to spokesman Gary Zavoral.

Dr. Dineen Greer, program director of the Family Medicine Residency Program, said the new training track in Amador County will definitely expand the area’s health care workforce. “Physicians who train in rural areas are much more likely to continue to serve rural communities,” she said.

The grant will get the program started, but the chief medical officer for the Sutter Health Valley area, Dr. Ash Gokli, said the new residency is there to stay.

A lack of doctors and hospital closures threaten too many rural areas in California, Gokli said. “That’s not going to happen in Amador County. We are there and we are committed to being there for a very long time.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated July 22, 2019, to correct the number of rural hospitals at high risk of closing in California.

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.
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