Guest Voice - Can We Afford to Let Rural Hospitals Die?

By Beth O’Connor

 

This Op-Ed was published originally on Bacon’s Rebellion, a politically independent Virginia-based commentary website. It is republished with permission from the author, who is the executive director of the Virginia Rural Health Association.. While some references are made to rural hospitals in Virginia, the situation mirrors that of rural Maine. The Calais Regional Hospital is a critical access facility, and, like Virginia, Maine was among the states that did not expand Medicaid. 

In the January 24th edition of Bacon’s Rebellion, author James A. Bacon poses the question; “Are Broke Rural Hospitals Worth Saving?” He acknowledges that many of Virginia’s rural hospitals are in trouble, but wonders if it makes financial sense to let them die.

The problem with his question is that he is only considering the issue in terms of healthcare dollars and outcomes. The reality is that a small rural hospital means much more to the local community and taxpayers than just a place to go when you have a heart attack.

The National Rural Health Association (NRHA) has published extensive information regarding the distress of rural hospitals and the importance of those facilities to small towns across the country. Since 2010, seventy-nine rural hospitals have closed. 673 additional facilities are vulnerable and could close, representing more than one-third of rural hospitals in the U.S. The rate of closures in rural areas is five times higher in 2016 compared to rates in 2010.

NRHA notes that losing access to healthcare is only one of the negative outcomes.  When a rural hospital closes, the rural economy suffers. In rural America, the hospital is often one of the largest employers in the community. Healthcare in rural areas can represent up to 20 percent of the commaunity’s employment and income. The average critical access hospital creates 170 jobs and generates $7.1 million in salaries, wages, and benefits annually. Meanwhile, the recession in rural America continues, with 90 percent of all job growth since 2008 occurring in metropolitan areas. If a hospital closes in a rural community, health providers relocate, and the town withers. If a rural provider is forced to close, the community erodes.

That’s right, if a hospital dies the whole town dies. Lee Regional Medical Center [located in Pennington Gap, VA] closed in 2013; it supported 190 full time equivalent positions.  These were not low-paying, entry-level jobs; these were doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, therapists. The hospital had been the fourth largest employer in the county; it pumped $11.5 million in labor costs into the local economy every year.

Once those jobs left, other jobs followed. Local clinics as well as ancillary services such as food service and cleaning services struggle without a hospital serving as an anchor. After the hospital closed, the community’s only day care center closed too. Virginia’s elected officials have spent untold hours trying to lure businesses to the Commonwealth, but a town without a stable healthcare system will not land the next business enterprise.

Additionally, when a rural hospital closes the taxpayer suffers. Rural hospitals provide cost-effective primary care. It is 2.5 percent less expensive to provide identical Medicare services in a rural setting than in an urban or suburban setting. The focus on primary care, as opposed to specialty care, saves Medicare $1.5 billion/year. Quality performance measurements in rural areas are on par with if not superior to urban facilities. Critical Access Hospitals represent nearly 30 percent of acute care hospitals but receive less than 5 percent of total Federal Medicare payments.

A ‘bigger is better’ mindset suggests that sending patients to Martinsville or Roanoke would be more efficient and have better outcomes, but the data suggests otherwise.  The healthcare analytics group iVantage has documented that hospitals in rural areas have significantly higher ratings on Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers than those located in urban areas.  This includes lower risk-adjusted rates of potential safety-related events, significantly lower adverse event rates than urban counterparts, and significantly lower rates of post-op hip fracture, hemorrhage, & hematoma.

Mr. Bacon refers to Medicaid expansion as “blunderbuss legislation.” I call it a lifeline. Since 2010, seventy-nine hospitals in rural America have closed. Two-thirds of those were in states that have refused to expand Medicaid, including two in Virginia.

By not expanding Medicaid, Virginia loses $142 million in federal funding every month. Since 2014, the Commonwealth has forfeited over $10 billion in federal funds — our own tax dollars that should have been used to help uninsured adults, hospitals, and businesses.

Others may be content to allow their tax dollars to go to Washington, D.C. and stay there.  I am not.  Virginia taxes should be spent on Virginia people and Virginia healthcare providers.

Because the question is not, “Are Broke Rural Hospitals Worth Saving?” The question is, “Can We Afford to Let Rural Hospitals Die?”