Rural hospitals struggle to stay open

For small town communities, health care options are even smaller.

Four rural hospitals across the state closed over the past two years.

They are Calhoun Memorial Hospital in Arlington, Stewart-Webster Hospital in Richland, Charlton Memorial Hospital in Folkston and Lower Oconee Community Hospital in Glenwood, which recently re-opened.

15 others are in a fragile state and on the verge of shutting down in coming months, according to Jimmy Lewis, the CEO of Hometown Health, a Georgia-based network of rural hospitals.

Financial strain is forcing small hospitals into desperate attempts to stay afloat.

More uninsured people needing care, less money back from insurance companies strapped under the Affordable Care Act, and it's the perfect storm causing rural hospitals to cut services or go under, says Monroe County Hospital CEO, Kay Floyd.

Monroe County Hospital requires $10 million a year to keep its doors open, Floyd says. But without that hospital, she says many in surrounding counties would lose their only viable option for health care. Otherwise, they'd have to travel 50 or more miles to Macon or Atlanta for medical attention.

"There are four contiguous counties and only one (Monroe County Hospital) in the whole bunch. If you have something serious like a heart attack or a bleeding injury, that could be fatal if you don't get there soon enough," Floyd said.

Floyd says she expects mortality rates to increase as rural hospitals close and communities to lose an economic engine.

"The hospital might have been one of the largest employers in the county. You take those 100-150 jobs out of commission, then where are those people going to go?"

The answer is in alliances, Floyd says, like Stratus Healthcare.

That's a partnership 23 state hospitals, including the Medical Center of Central Georgia and the Houston Medical Center, formed last year.

MCCG's director of external affairs, Julie Windom, says the alliance aims to pool resources between hospitals, share hospital records and increase efficiency while maintaining independence.

"It would cut some of the costs the patient has. We are looking at perhaps combined billing offices in a central location. We are also looking at some sort of shared data warehouse in a cloud," Windom says.

But Monroe County Hospital is taking a different approach and shelling out nearly half a million dollars for a year-long alliance with a Texas consulting company, Community Hospital Corporation.

Floyd says the agreement gives the hospital discounts on supplies and develops plans to increase revenue, which has taken up to a 10% hit in recent years.

That adds up to a $2 million dollar loss for the hospital each year.

Financial losses mean hospitals have to decide where to cut services.

Windom says many hospitals are dropping their obstetrics unit, because they cost too much to operate and rural areas have difficulty attracting physicians.

Jessica Evans says she's been driving regularly from Barnesville to Macon for OB/GYN care.

"It's a good little drive; it's about 40 minutes. When it comes to your babies or your health, it's always worth it to make a drive," Evans said.

Evans had her third baby at the Medical Center of Central Georgia last week.

There are hospitals closer to her, like Upson Regional, where she had her first child six years ago.

But she says rural hospitals are limited in options and don't offer the specialized care she wants, like midwifery.

"You're just going to want the best care. It's not that they may not be the best doctor, you just don't have a choice," Evans said.

And the choices may become even more constrained now, as rural hospitals battle for business and struggle to stay open.

On Friday, Governor Deal named 15 people to the Rural Hospital Stabilization Committee to help struggling rural hospitals find solutions.

Tomorrow, the Department of Community Health may approve changes in regulations, to allow rural hospitals or ones that recently closed to downsize services.

Floyd says that means rural counties may be able to operate free-standing emergency rooms or stabilization centers without any other services for people who need urgent care.

She says hospitals are also starting to take up telemedicine, where physicians and specialists are available virtually.

Follow 13WMAZ's Anita Oh on Twitter @anita_oh and on Facebook at Anita Oh WMAZ.


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