Double dose of positive health news

Georgians, like most other Americans, will no doubt welcome any positive and encouraging news on the subject of health care. Two such items deserve attention, and they come from two places from whence good news is not necessarily the first expectation — Washington and Atlanta.

The former is of nationwide impact, and it offers hope for families in desperate need of it.

It’s a short-term version of a bill Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced last year to extend an incentive program for research on treatments and cures for rare childhood diseases. Isakson introduced the Advancing Hope Act, with the co-sponsorship of Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

Support for the legislation was not just bipartisan; it was unanimous. The Senate approved the measure without a dissenting vote last week; the House followed suit on Wednesday.

The bill extends for another year an FDA program called the Pediatric Rare Disease Priority Review Voucher, which was scheduled to sunset at the end of this month. It encourages investment in research and treatments for rare childhood conditions by granting a voucher for any FDA-approved medicine a company develops. That voucher, which can be used or sold to another company, expedites review of another drug submitted for government approval.

Isakson, a member of the Senate Health Committee, is looking for a longer-term commitment to research on childhood ailments that (God willing) will never have a large enough “customer” base to be profitable. As rare as bipartisanship on anything is in Washington these days, this is a rare opportunity for Congress to really do something worthwhile.

The other encouraging development on the health front is the official launch of a program, Rural Healthcare 180, to help struggling rural hospitals stay afloat — and thus help many of the people who depend on them stay alive.

As reported in these pages earlier this summer, the General Assembly approved a program of individual and corporate tax credits for donations to financially strapped hospitals in the state. It’s no exaggeration to call the situation a crisis: Five rural hospitals in Georgia have closed in less than four years, and many more are in jeopardy.

Georgia Health News reported Wednesday that Kim Gilman, CEO of two southwest Georgia hospitals, has called the legislation a “lifeline” for medical services in rural areas.

The circumstances of rural hospitals are such that it is all but impossible for them to be self-sustaining. The costs of facilities, salaries, regulation compliance (mostly in the category of up-to-date medical equipment) and infrastructure weigh heavily, and sometimes prohibitively, on hospitals in areas with high populations of poor and uninsured residents — like southwest Georgia.

Yet, as one member of the Rural Healthcare 180 task force pointed out, luring business and industry to areas where quality medical care is in short supply is a losing battle. A program like this, said Claxton Poultry Federation “presents a tremendous opportunity” to turn that around.