McKnights: ‘Critical access’ not at critical mass, but skilled nursing providers push on

Support for the concept of critical access nursing homes is growing among providers, but it has yet to gain much traction among industry leaders or the politicians who would need to create such a safety net for seniors and people with disabilities.

Such a program could bring more stability to a struggling subset of nursing homes, much as it has for about two-thirds of the nation’s rural hospitals.

Certified critical access hospitals are paid based on their costs, rather than on patient lengths of stay or services. This creates a reliable funding source to help sustain providers with potentially low patient volumes. The special designation originated in the 1990s after a string of rural hospital closures in the previous decade.

A similar program has never been created for nursing homes, but some providers believe now could be an ideal time. Many skilled nursing operators, especially those in some rural states, were squeezed hard by stagnant Medicaid rates even before the pandemic. Now, they are inching ever closer to closure amid continuing COVID-19 precautions and staffing shortages.

“Policymakers need to understand ‘rural’ doesn’t mean low-cost. We are unique and the unique needs for providing care in rural communities need to be addressed,” said Mark McKenzie, CEO of Focused Post-Acute Partners, which operates 29 skilled nursing communities in Texas. Twenty of those are in rural areas, some in towns with as few as 3,000 residents. “Years ago, it wasn’t a detriment to be a rural SNF provider, but COVID process mandates had a real and lingering negative impact on staffing and overall costs.”

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