Rural hospitals continue to struggle, closures mount

Pungo Hospital in Belhaven, North Carolina, closed earlier this month, the latest casualty of the financial crisis enveloping many of the nation's hospitals, Al Jazeera America reported.

The hospital provided healthcare services to two of North Carolina's poorest counties, according to Al Jazeera. Vidant Health, a regional provider, decided to replace the hospital with a 24-hour urgent care clinic. The closest hospital is now 30 miles away.

In Tennessee, Haywood Park Community Hospital will shut down its inpatient services on July 31. In the Volunteer State, 28 rural hospitals face significant budget cuts or closures, according to the article.

Meanwhile, in Alabama, six rural facilities have closed in the past 18 months, and another 22 are under financial pressure. In Georgia, lawmakers propose the legalization of standalone emergency rooms in order to address the shortfall of care caused by the closures. And South Carolina now offers funds to help hospitals explore alternative business models.

Altogether, 14 rural hospitals shut down last year, according to the article, which cites data from the National Rural Health Association. Many of them were big economic drivers for the regions they serve, often creating hundreds of jobs. For example, Pungo Hospital was the biggest employer in town. The loss of local tax revenue from its closure was so profound that the city may raise its taxes on residents by 10 percent in order to cover the projected shortfall.

Pungo's demise is llinked in part to the refusal of North Carolina's lawmakers to expand the eligibility of its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, although Al Jazeera observed that there is no consensus as to the actual cause. A shift from fee-for-service to pay-for-performance reimbursement models, an overall cut in reimbursements and Congressional gridlock may also be reasons for the failure of rural hositals. However, officials with Haywood Park blamed its pending closure on the lack of Medicaid expansion.

To learn more:
- read the Al Jazeera America article