By Earl Rogers
National Hospital Week was May 7-13 and, throughout the week, many in the health care field recognized the life-saving contributions that Georgia hospitals make to our state. But in some communities where hospital buildings stand, there were no celebrations.
A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that another rural Georgia hospital will close. This will be the seventh Georgia hospital since 2013 – and sixth rural hospital – to close its doors. The reasons for the closure are all too familiar: declining payments from Medicare and Medicaid; too many uninsured patients; and the resulting inability to keep pace with necessary, but costly, infrastructure upgrades.
As a state, maybe we’ve become jaded to hospital closures. Maybe we’ve read about them so many times that, like many other frequent and negative events, we’ve come to reluctantly accept them as just another unfortunate fact of life – that is, until it is your hospital that closes.
In 2013, Folkston, Ga. native Pam Renshaw learned the hard way. According to a 2015 report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, only 45 days after the closure of her hometown hospital, Renshaw took a turn too quickly and crashed her four-wheeler into a pile of burning trash. Pinned under the ATV, Renshaw suffered burns on half of her body. Because there was no longer a nearby hospital, it took Renshaw nearly two hours to get to a hospital.
She was eventually life-flighted to a hospital burn unit in Gainesville, Fla. where she spent more than seven months there, five of them in the ICU.
According to the same report, one 52-year-old man died after suffering a heart attack almost a month after his local hospital had closed.
Because the area’s two ambulances were already transporting patients to other hospitals more than 20 miles away, the man didn’t receive the care he needed in time to save his life.
For many, this man is another sad statistic – someone who likely died because he had a heart attack in the wrong place at the wrong time. But he was most likely someone’s dad. Someone’s husband. A cherished son. A valued friend. Four years later, I can imagine the loved ones who still place flowers on his gravesite. Still deeply wounded by a death that could have been prevented.
For others in these communities who no longer have a hospital, the impact of the closure will also sting in the pocketbook.
The mere presence of a hospital creates many other local jobs outside of the health care sector including restaurants, hotels and real estate. In fact, according to our latest economic impact report, Georgia’s rural hospitals created nearly 57,000 full-time jobs in the state.
By now, the residents of Georgia towns such as Arlington, Richland, Folkston and Glenwood have learned to cope without their local hospitals as they stand eerily empty, some with boarded windows and weeds growing in the parking lot. Thankfully, some have access to local primary-care physicians who have bravely remained to try to meet basic community health needs. But make no mistake: These communities will never be the same without their hospitals.
Hospital Week provided a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the institutions and heroic caregivers and employees who all play a role in protecting health and preserving families in our communities.
Hospitals are beacons of health, hope and compassion during a time when all three seem to be in short supply in our world. They are sacred places where one day, we join hands and tearfully say goodbye to a loved one and another day, we joyfully celebrate the miracle of new life.
As critical as they are to all of our lives, hospitals in our state are under duress. In 2015, Georgia hospitals provided more than $1.74 billion in uncompensated care causing more than four out of 10 hospitals in the state to lose money that year. Many are fighting desperately to stave off closure. Some may lose that battle.
This is unacceptable. That’s why the Georgia Hospital Association will never stop advocating for adequate payments from Medicare and Medicaid.
We will only support health reform plans that reduce Georgia’s uninsured rate. We will continue to educate lawmakers in Atlanta and Washington about the importance of rural hospitals to their communities.
We will work tirelessly to ensure that every Georgia hospital has the resources needed to meet the needs of its patients.
Our community hospitals are indispensable. We owe it to all Georgians to keep fighting for them. Please join us in celebrating all that hospitals mean to our state while working with us to ensure their viability for years to come.
The writer is president of the Georgia Hospital Association.