This is part 2 of a special report
The medical predicament that many rural communities want to avoid is 35 miles south of Columbus, Georgia.
Eight years ago, the Stewart Webster Hospital, in financial crisis, closed its doors for the last time. Now, weeds and trash litter the grounds around the facility.
In the years since, Adolph McLendon, mayor of the town of Richland in Stewart County, has talked with major Georgia health systems about setting up medical care there — like an emergency department. autonomous – but without any takers so far. He still hopes a new facility “can save a few people,” he said.
“If there’s an emergency, an ambulance has to take them to Americus or Albany or Columbus, which takes 45 minutes to an hour,” said longtime Stewart County physician Dr. Alluri Raju. “We are seeing poor medical outcomes.”
Patients must travel outside of Stewart County, even for routine medical services such as CT scans and X-rays.
Over the past 10 years, eight rural hospitals have closed in Georgia. They won’t be the last, experts predict. More than a dozen rural Georgia hospitals, scattered across the state, are struggling to break even financially, said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health, an association of rural hospitals in the state. .
And in Toccoa, northeast Georgia, Stephens County Hospital has lost at least $2 million a year for the past six years, CEO Van Loskoski said.
The hospital closed its labor and delivery wards to stop financial hemorrhage. The move is intended to be temporary. Local residents, however, are worried about the general future of their hospital, which has made headlines in the Toccoa newspaper.
Federal Covid funds have curbed hospital closings this year, the National Rural Health Association said. Yet according to the organization, 453 rural hospitals, about a quarter of the total, are at risk of closing. Overall, the pandemic has exacerbated rural health care challenges, including health workforce challenges.
However, the recent closure of a hospital in Georgia did not make a big impact in his community. Northeast of Atlanta, the Northridge Medical Center closed last year in Commerce, along the I-85 corridor.
“The impact is definitely there,” said Commerce City Manager James Wascher, citing in particular the loss of the hospital’s emergency department. “But nobody packed up and left.”
Hospitals are available nearby in Athens, Braselton and Gainesville, he said. “It’s a little harder to travel,” Wascher said.
Loskoski, CEO of Stephens County Hospital, said recently that “we are struggling as much as any rural hospital. The population is not increasing much. ” (The most recent census records showed the county had gained just 609 residents in a decade.)
“It’s extremely expensive for us to provide health care in the midst of a pandemic,” Loskoski said. “The patients we see are more complex medically. And finding enough staff is a constant challenge.
“Rural health care has been dragging on for a long time,” he says. “We need the community to support us. Every hospital risks closing in a rural market.
Loskoski, however, is trying different strategies for Stephens County Hospital, including expanding behavioral health services and looking into other such ventures in an effort to reach more clients.
Mark Wilkinson, who has lived his entire life in Stephens County, is chairman of the Hospital Authority. He runs a lumber business, but is also familiar with health care terminology, especially regarding reimbursement, from his position at the hospital.
“We don’t have a lot of patients who have private insurance,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a tough business when you have a lot of almshouse care, Medicare and Medicaid.” The hospital provided $11 million in indigent care last year, he said.
The county helped the hospital with a $5 million bridge loan, which was repaid, and a $15 million bond.
“The community is very concerned and very divided about the future of the hospital,” said Tom Law, editor of the Toccoa Record. Most, however, say some sort of medical facility is needed, with at least one providing emergency care, Law said. “There are people who think we are paying good after bad.”
Closing the hospital would be disastrous, Wilkinson said. It provides 400 jobs and has an annual financial effect of $100 million on Stephens County’s economy, he noted. “It means everything to us.”
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation provided funding for the writing of this article.