Fort Scott, Kansas started out as just that, a U.S. Army fort named in 1842 for General Winfield Scott. 11 years later, the Army sold the fort to local citizens who built such a successful market town that in the years after the Civil War, Fort Scott actually competed with Kansas City, 90 miles to the north, to be a major hub of railroad traffic.
Fort Scott lost that competition, and in every census since 1940 it’s been losing people. In the years since the 2010 census, Fort Scott’s population dropped below 8,000, and although it remains the County Seat of Bourbon County, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, it keeps falling farther behind bigger cities and more prosperous parts of the country.
A major blow to Fort Scott, its residents and folks who live in the rural areas that spread out from town came late last year, when it was announced that the town’s 132-year-old Mercy hospital would close.
The news was shocking and awful. As one resident told our guest today, reporter Sarah Jane Tribble of Kaiser Health News, “Babies are going to be dying. This is a disaster.”
The Catholic order of the Sisters of Mercy established a hospital in St Louis in 1871, and 15 years later opened the small 10-bed Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott. Reta Baker went to work at the Fort Scott facility as a nurse in 1981, and 38 years later ended her career as its president.
Mercy Hospital maintained 40 beds, but for its last functional year, it averaged just nine resident patients a night. Among small hospitals in Kansas, these figures were neither unusual nor close to the worst. A study showed, in 2018, 45 hospitals in the state reported an average daily census of fewer than two patients.
But of course, a hospital cares for more than just resident patients. So, even though part of the hospital building has reopened under new management, offering emergency care, an outpatient clinic and other services, for many former customers of Mercy Fort Scott with chronic illnesses or sudden emergencies, an hour’s drive to a hospital in Chanute, or two hours to Kansas City or across much of Missouri to Joplin are alternatives that range from painful to life-threatening.
And the hospital closing not only hurts customers, it hits the local economy hard, eliminating well-paying jobs, chasing some of Fort Scott’s leading professionals from town and discouraging newcomers from moving in.
According to a study from the University of North Carolina, these are losses replicated at more than 100 rural hospitals closed in America since 2010.
Which, Sarah Jane Tribble points out in her Kaiser Health News series “No Mercy,” raises two very hard questions – Do small communities like Fort Scott need a traditional hospital? And, if not, what health care do they need?
Sarah Jane Tribble, senior correspondent, joined Kaiser Health News from Ideastream—the NPR/PBS member station in Cleveland, Ohio—where she covered health, health policy and the business of healthcare. She won an Emmy as host of the station’s healthcare programming and was a regular contributor on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Tribble built her career as an award-winning business reporter at newspapers including The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer and San Jose Mercury News. As a 2000 Kaiser Media Fellow, her reporting on prescription drug prices and Cuba’s health system appeared in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.