Ben Sasse Aims to Save Rural Healthcare In COVID-19 Fight

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., questions Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

As the COVID-19 pandemic plays out, most media focus has been on big, cosmopolitan cities where a ton of mainstream media figures live and work— especially New York City and Los Angeles.

However, Louisiana has experienced some of the worst of the COVID-19 crisis and the state is hurting badly. It’s incredibly important that hospitals here stay open and are able to devote 100% of their attention to actual health care, as opposed to diverting resources to complying with federal government mandates and regulations.

Sen. Ben Sasse obviously isn’t from Louisiana. But ironically, legislation he has introduced might end up being the difference between a ton of Louisianans living and dying in this crisis because Sasse has had the good sense to recognize that a pandemic is a crappy time to be forcing frontline, emergency health care providers to be jumping through hoops at the behest of federal bureaucrats. Here’s how.

One of the major lifelines to rural hospitals on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis is something called the 340B drug discount program. It costs taxpayers zero dollars, allows poorer patients access to cheaper drugs, and weirdly keeps rural health care providers including Louisiana’s St James Parish Hospital— the focal point of this harrowing story— open and functioning. The “how” behind this is somewhat complicated, but the fact of it is not under debate.

Under the program, hospitals like St James, where staff are now “intubating [patients] every single day, when we maybe [used] to do it on a monthly basis,” have to do a bunch of federal government-mandated “eligibility determinations.” Under normal conditions, this arguably makes sense. The problem is, right now, devoting staff time to this detracts from hospitals’ ability to save lives when they’re already in a crunch. Reports indicate that St James is “planning to bring five more ventilators online in the next few days – three are rentals, one is a converted anesthesia machine, and a staff member drove six hours round-trip to pick up the final one from another rural Louisiana hospital.” That staff member could have been doing “eligibility determination” paperwork, but thankfully they skipped it. Unfortunately, the law still says it has to be done, even in these conditions.

Here’s where we get to the Ben Sasse part. He has introduced the Relief for Rural Providers During Emergencies Act. The legislation “pauses eligibility determinations for the 340B drug discount program for FY 2020 and FY 2021.” In other words, he’s doing the conservative thing and saying “shelve the federally-mandated paperwork while this emergency is ongoing.”

Originally, Sasse’s bill was supposed to be included as an amendment to the last coronavirus stimulus. It’s not clear why that didn’t happen, but it’s worth noting that the pharmaceutical industry does not like the 340B program because it thinks it eats into its profits and the pharmaceutical industry maintains a lot of clout in Washington, DC.

Nonetheless, given who controls the White House and the Senate, and given how 340B and 340B hospitals really benefit the rural Americans who swept Republicans to the Senate majority and got President Trump elected, that clout should probably be ignored for the time being and Sasse’s legislation prioritized. COVID-19 seems to disproportionately impact the elderly, who are more inclined to vote Republican. And without older and rural voters, it’s hard to see how Trump or Republicans like Joni Ernst stand a chance at re-election in 2020.

Obviously, there are many good and principled reasons to oppose federal government regulation and mandates. But this is an extra, practical one that the GOP probably should pay attention to, and not just because we’re supposed to be the pro-life party. It’s also just in our political self-interest.