Rural hospitals closing at an alarming rate

Rural hospitals in trouble is not a new topic, but the significant increase in closings and risk of such is finally getting some attention. The issue for years has been the large percentage of a rural hospital’s budget that went unpaid due to patient debt and indigent care. In some hospitals, the percentage of these two items is more than 1/2 of the budget.

Per a February, 2019 article in Modern Healthcare called “Nearly a quarter of rural hospitals are on the brink of closing” by Alex Kacik: “Twenty-one percent of rural hospitals are at high risk of closing, according to Navigant’s analysis of CMS data on 2,045 rural hospitals. That equates to 430 hospitals across 43 states that employ about 150,000 people and generate about $21.2 billion in total patient revenue a year.

Hospitals are often the economic drivers of rural communities. Per capita income falls 4% and the unemployment rate rises 1.6 percentage points when a hospital closes, a related study found. Ninety-seven rural hospitals have closed since 2010, according to the University of North Carolina Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

They also broke the impact down by state, revealing that half of Alabama’s rural hospitals are in financial distress, the highest percentage in the country. At least 36% of the hospitals in Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Maine and Mississippi are in financial jeopardy.”

Most of the states in trouble chose not to expand Medicaid, but there are some who did or are now doing so. Per several studies by The Commonwealth Fund, RAND Corporation, Economic Policy Institute and George Washington University, expanding Medicaid would help patients, state economies and rural hospitals. Why? It would allow these hospitals to get paid and paid closer to the time of service reducing accounts receivables. Getting paid has an echo effect on employees and consumers.

This issue was brought home by two Republicans pleading with their party to acquiesce in states like North and South Carolina that did not expand Medicaid. GOP Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who ran for President, said Medicaid expansion is a “no brainer” and would add over $13 billion to Ohio over several years. Yet, the most dramatic plea was from Adam O’Neal, a GOP Mayor of a North Carolina town called Belhaven.

After failing to get the GOP majority in Raleigh to help save his town’s Vidant Pungo Hospital that served 20,000 people, he walked 273 miles to Washington, DC over 14 days. “You can’t let rural hospitals close across the country. People die,” O’Neal, told Modern Healthcare in 2014. Unfortunately, Vidant Pungo closed later that year (note a non-ER clinic opened in 2016).

You can add my pleas for help back then (and now). Folks, this stuff is real. I do not care if your tribe is blue, red, purple are chartreuse, hospital closings impact people’s lives and people’s livelihoods. Closings also hurt their community’s economy. My strong advice is for legislators to stop political posturing and do something. I do not care who wins or loses a political game. Stop focusing on keeping your job and do your job. You could start by expanding Medicaid, joining the other 36 states.