A third of rural hospitals at risk for closure; extension of federal programs could provide relief

A sunset over a barn structure
Rural hospital closures can significantly impact the communities they serve. (Getty/ehrlif)

A third of rural hospitals are at risk for closure, and those closures have a ripple effect on rural communities. 

Diane Calmus, government affairs and policy manager for the National Rural Health Association, said in an interview with AgriTalk that the financial struggles of rural hospitals have far-reaching impacts on the communities they serve. 

“Not only do we see the loss of access to care at the hospitals, but [often] physicians, nurses, physical therapists [and] pharmacists are connected to those hospitals, and so when that hospital closes their services also leave the community," Calmus said.

"How do you bring in new jobs to a local community when there is no place to take your kid when they fall off the monkey bars and break their arm in the middle of the day?” 

NRHA research suggests that 673 rural hospitals are close to closing, she said, a third of those currently in operation. Eighty-two have closed since 2010. 

RELATED: The devastating impact on a poor community when a rural hospital closes its doors 

Population loss is one of the major challenges facing these facilities, according to an article from High Plains Public Radio. 

“It’s a very narrow edge on which a lot of these rural hospitals are living,” Andrew Coburn, director of the Maine Rural Health Research Center, told the publication. “Because we’re talking about very small numbers. The loss of 10 to 20 percent of their patient load is more significant than it would be in New York City, because it represents a much higher portion of their total revenue.” 

Hospitals often need to grow out of financial woes, which is close to impossible for rural facilities with dwindling populations, he said. 

RELATED: How technology upgrades sparked a financial resurgence at two rural hospitals 

There are steps lawmakers can take to bolster struggling rural hospitals, experts say. Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican who served in Congress between 1993 and 2007, wrote in an op-ed for The Hill that one of the major keys is the 340B drug discount program. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has proposed changes to the 340B program that would slash payments. Rural hospitals would especially feel the changes, Bonilla said. He said the cuts would make rural facilities in his state "even more desperate." 

Two federal programs that also provide funding to rural hospitals are set to expire at the end of the month if Congress doesn't act to continue them. The Federation of American Hospitals told Middle Tennessee Public Radio that 34 hospitals in the state would likely close if the programs do not continue.