Rural residents are losing their go-to hospitals at record rates.
When the Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center (SGRMC) closed in October 2020, rural Georgia residents were devastated. When almost any rural hospital closes, it’s devastating for residents because they can end up having to travel a life-threatening distance to get care. And, sometimes, it can be fatal.
Cuthbert, Georgia, resident Lacandie Gipson and her family found this out in the worse way possible. Gipson began to show symptoms of a heart attack, but instead of being able to drive to the SGRMC, which had been only a mile from their home, an emergency medical team ended up having to take her more than 25 miles to receive treatment in Eufaula, Alabama. And by the time they arrived it was too late. She was pronounced dead.
“They said it was a heart attack,” said Keila Davis, who lived with Gipson. “If the hospital was still open, it could have saved her.”
Largely due to the pandemic and the influx of coronavirus patients without enough medical personnel to treat them or systems equipment to handle the devastation, nearly twenty rural hospitals closed in 2020 alone. This is the largest number of facilities to shut down in one year since fifteen years ago, in 2005.
The Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina has been tracking this data for a while and announced the staggering number of closures. The organization also indicated that, in the past decade, “eight rural hospitals” shuttered their doors in Georgia alone. Texas and Tennessee had even more, the data shows.
Medicaid also has to be factored into this picture. It has historically been the driving force behind keeping hospitals open. It has kept the lights on in many in rural areas since 2014, the research center suggested. And the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was the main case for expansion of these services.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” since it was implemented under the direction of former Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama, is a United States federal statute enacted by the 111th United States Congress and signed by the Obama administration in March 2010. It represents the largest expansion of U.S. healthcare coverage since the initial passing of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
“Georgia’s inaction on Medicaid expansion hurt us,” said Cuthbert’s Republican Mayor Steve Whatley, adding that it’s “is unbelievably impactful.”
Not only has the pandemic made hospitals overflow with sick patients while they’re understaffed and were unprepared at the onset, “Several (other) factors have contributed to the hospital closures nationally,” according to the Sheps Center.
“Struggling rural hospitals treat high numbers of uninsured patients and people with chronic disease, said George Pink, a senior research fellow at the center. “They have a high level of uncompensated care, and not enough patients with private insurance, which reimburses hospitals at higher rates than Medicaid and Medicare do.” The combination between high patient populations in these areas (even more during the pandemic) and higher rates of these governmental programs means there’s less of a likelihood that enough beds (or hospitals) will be available.