Rural health crisis deepens: Alabama hospital slated to close, legislation may force others to shut their doors

A sunset over a barn structure
Rural hospitals continue to face financial issues, and experts say things may get worse. (Getty/ehrlif)

The financial struggles of rural hospitals show no signs of abating, as more facilities close and legislation aimed at improving their situation may actually accelerate their decline. 

A bill introduced in the House would extend several Medicare payment provisions to rural hospitals, but it would cut swing bed payments to critical access hospitals, according to an article from the Healthcare Financial Management Association. 

"Any proposal that would substantially reduce swing bed reimbursements will not be good for rural hospitals and could accelerate the rate of closures," George Pink, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and the deputy director of the NC Rural Health Research Program, told the publication. 

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Meanwhile, rural hospital closures continue to significantly impact healthcare options in a number of states. In Alabama, the only hospital in Winston County, the 59-bed Lakeland Community Hospital, will close its doors by the end of the year, reported AL.com. 

Hospital officials blame reduced reimbursements as the reason for the closure, according to the article, and said they tried to stay open despite those financial challenges. Hospitals in Alabama are among the lowest-paid for Medicaid care in the country. 

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A third of rural hospitals in the U.S. are at risk for closure, about 673 hospitals nationwide. Eighty-two facilities have closed since 2010. Legislators can take steps to save these facilities; for example, experts suggest reconsidering changes to the 340B drug discount program that would reduce payments. 

The financial struggles aren't restricted solely to rural hospitals. Healthcare facility bankruptcy filings have increased by more than three times over the past year, according to an article from Bloomberg. 

The outlook isn't all bad, however. Some rural facilities have found success amid the widespread financial struggles. In Georgia, the 25-bed Miller County Hospital took on patients in need of nursing home care who may not otherwise have afforded it, and saw its reimbursements increase, Robin Rau, the hospital's CEO, told WABE, Atlanta's public radio station. 

Rau said the hospital also was able to save money because it opened up a pharmacy and offered more services at a rural clinic to reduce unnecessary emergency room visits.   

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