We've seen many reports of hospitals packed with Covid-19 patients. But the same pandemic that's overcrowded city hospitals has had the opposite impact on medical facilities in the countryside. Joce Sterman reports it's putting many of them on the brink of financial disaster.
Pam Pfister isn’t just the CEO of a rural hospital in Illinois.
Pam Pfister: You do know your community members, you do know a lot of your patients
She’s a mom, who’s raised 6 children in this very place.
So, for her, rural healthcare is personal.
Pfister: Everyone needs to realize what these rural hospitals bring to their communities, you can put it on paper, you can put it in a dollar amount, but really it’s life saving measures that these healthcare organizations do.
Life-saving work that’s facing a real threat because of dwindling budgets.
According to research from the University of North Carolina, 129 rural hospitals in the U.S. have closed since 2010. 18 closed last year alone.
Pat Schou: Think about the pandemic. You know, if we didn’t have our rural communities and the urban facilities are full, what are you going to do?
Pat Schou is president of the National Rural Health Association. She says rural hospitals play a vital role in fighting covid, but with emergency room visits down, elective surgeries cancelled in many states and hospitals forced to spend on testing, supplies, and protective equipment, it put their bottom-line at even greater risk.
Joce: With the economic hit that hospitals have taken as a result of coronavirus where people aren't coming in for procedures, they've been staying away from the hospital as a result of this pandemic, will some rural hospitals close?
Schou: That's the potential. There was a closure in West Virginia. There's, um, a couple of in Kansas and some other places that are hinting at closing, if things don't turn around, but it is because you have to have money coming in.
In March, several top healthcare organizations, including the American Hospital Association, urged Congress to provide funding to help hospitals stay afloat, acknowledging the special circumstance in rural areas.
They wrote, quote: “Some facilitiesare able to absorb significant losses...others, such as rural facilities, are not.”
Weeks later, the CARES Act passed, providing $100 billion in funding, as well as loans, and support to rural hospitals.
Schou: It was just great that they earmarked money specifically for rural hospitals and rural health clinics. And if we had not gotten that funding, you know, our hospitals, they would have had to furlough more people. We would have had to reduce operation, reduced services and people will get sicker. It'll take longer to get care.
Pam Pfister says federal funding helps keep them afloat but doesn’t solve the problem. Even today, as people hesitate to go back to routine health care, she says her hospital is seeing about half of its usual volume.
Schou: We’re all doing more with less and our funding reimbursement is not keeping up with that, so that was on the forefront prior to corona, but when a pandemic hits you and it has such a significant impact on revenue, we’re all going to see that for many months to come.
For now, Morrison County Hospital is one of the fortunate ones. They’ve launched a $20 million expansion to improve services. But Pat Schou, who’s watching the national trends, knows others aren’t so lucky.
Schou: If we don't think about our rural communities, they will be gone, and we don't want that. So, they're really the backbone, the heart of the economy, and very, very important to our success and the future of our country. So, our hospitals help keep it safe. We're part of that important piece that makes it successful.
For Full Measure, I’m Joce Sterman.