Arkansas Advocate
A sign for Delta Memorial Hospital in Dumas Matt White

Arkansas lawmakers have directed federal COVID-19 relief funds to 17 of the 18 rural hospitals deemed eligible for the aid, pending final approval of nearly $13.5 million for four facilities.

The Arkansas Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee approved the following awards from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 on Tuesday with no dissent:

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  • $2,737,165 to Mena Regional Health System
  • $3,441,839 to Bradley County Medical Center in Warren
  • $3,441,839 to South Mississippi County Regional Medical Center in Osceola
  • $3,832,031 to Great River Medical Center in Blytheville

ARPA funds are aimed at covering costs incurred during the pandemic. Arkansas received an initial pot of more than $1.5 billion for lawmakers to distribute, and $60 million was set aside in August 2022 as emergency relief for struggling rural hospitals.

With the full Legislative Council’s approval Friday, the state will have distributed nearly all of the $60 million, with roughly half a million remaining.

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The state hired the Alvarez & Marsal consulting firm to assess rural hospitals’ eligibility for ARPA funds and help lawmakers decide how to prioritize the funding requests. The firm evaluated 18 hospitals, and all but Ozarks Community Hospital in Gravette have received financial aid since September 2022.

All four hospitals approved for funding Tuesday cited struggles to recruit and retain staff and the high cost of paying for traveling nurses as reasons for seeking federal aid, according to documents submitted to lawmakers outlining the hospitals’ strengths, challenges and financial situations.

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Mena Regional Health System has been paying $100,000 per month “in premium pay over staff pay costs” to support traveling nurses, according to its evaluation documents. The hospital had about 52 days of cash on hand in February.

Bradley County Medical Center “is not currently experiencing problems with meeting short-term obligations due to cash flow,” but closed its labor and delivery unit recently due to its staffing challenges.

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South Mississippi County (SMC) Regional Medical Center wrote that a shortage of housing in the region makes it difficult to recruit and retain physicians and other hospital staff. The hospital had 50 days of cash on hand in February.

Additionally, Mississippi County’s 21.8% poverty rate “results in an adverse payor mix and lower reimbursement for our services,” according to the sustainability plan documents for both SMC and Great River Medical Center.

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SMC and Bradley County Medical Center are both critical access hospitals, which are located at least 35 miles from other hospitals and have a maximum of 25 beds.

Additionally, SMC plans to sign up for the “rural emergency hospital” designation, established in 2021 by a federal law and adopted in Arkansas last year. The designation attracts more funds to rural hospitals from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in exchange for the reduction or elimination of inpatient services and increased focus on emergency and outpatient treatment.

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St. Bernards Five Rivers Medical Center in Pocahontas, part of the St. Bernards Healthcare system based in Jonesboro, became Arkansas’ first rural emergency hospital in September. Eureka Springs Medical Center, which received $4.6 million in ARPA funds in November, has also opted into the designation.

Twelve other rural hospitals have received legislative approval for ARPA funds:

  • Arkansas Methodist Medical Center: $3.3 million
  • Baxter Health: $4.6 million
  • Chicot Memorial Medical Center: $3.4 million
  • Delta Memorial Hospital: $2.6 million
  • DeWitt Hospital and Nursing Home: $1.5 million
  • Drew Memorial Health System: $5 million
  • Fulton County Hospital: $5 million
  • Howard Memorial Hospital: $3.4 million
  • Magnolia Regional Medical Center: $1.9 million
  • North Arkansas Regional Medical Center: $1.4 million
  • Ouachita County Medical Center: $6 million
  • Piggott Community Hospital: $3.4 million

Additionally, Sevier County Medical Center received $6.5 million in December 2022, shortly before it opened in De Queen, from a different subset of ARPA funds. It was not one of the 18 hospitals Alvarez and Marsal evaluated.

Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: info@arkansasadvocate.com. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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