It was almost a year and a half ago, in July 2019, that Sarah Jane Tribble, Senior Correspondent for Kaiser Health News spoke with us about the closing of the 132-year-old Mercy hospital in Ft. Scott, Kansas, a small town about 100 miles south of Kansas City.
The news hit hard. As one resident of Ft. Scott told Tribble, “Babies are going to be dying. This is a disaster.”
Closing rural hospitals is an ongoing disaster and a familiar one. More than 170 rural hospitals have closed nationwide since 2005, and the effects are, in the words of one academic expert, “pretty clear.”
“We know,” he says, “that a closure leads to higher mortality pretty quickly.” One 2019 study has quantified the impact. It reported that death rates in the surrounding communities increase nearly six percent after a rural hospital closes — and that’s when there’s not a pandemic.”
The national outbreak of COVID-19 has changed almost everything in American medical care, especially at hospitals, and most especially at rural hospitals. They saw an estimated 70 percent of their income stopped, as patients avoided or lost access to emergency rooms, doctors’ appointments and elective surgeries.
That loss estimate itself is likely outmoded today as the pandemic moves ever-more-intensely into rural areas. Once again, states are locking down and hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients and are telling patients for elective procedures, they’re going to have to wait.
During the first wave of the outbreak, Congress responded with grants and loans to help hospitals cope. The federal aid “helped rural hospitals with the immediate storm,” said the president of the Alabama Hospital Association, but the Coronavirus storm has continued and Congressional action stopped in the months before the election.
Resumption of programs to help healthcare providers, urban and rural, are among the agenda items ignored by President Trump since his defeat at the polls has focused him on ways to stay in power and stay out of prison. In other words, the crisis in rural medicine is one more catastrophe on Joe Biden’s must fix list.
Well, he asked for it. He wanted to be president.
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.