Rural hospitals in the United States are having an increasingly hard time staying in business. Which is not great for the health of people who live in areas that no longer have a hospital.
Rural hospitals in the United States are having an increasingly hard time staying in business. Which is not great for the health of people who live in areas that no longer have a hospital.
More than 20 hospitals have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy since 2016, according to an Oct. 30 report from the law firm Polsinelli.
The Polsinelli-TrBK Distress Indices Report details how healthcare trends have affected the U.S. economy. Researchers determined that while the economy, specifically Chapter 11 bankruptcies across all industries and the real estate industry, have remained stable during the past several quarters, healthcare exhibited consistently high levels of distress during eight of the last 11 quarters.
To compile the report, researchers use Chapter 11 bankruptcy data as a proxy for measuring financial distress in the overall U.S. economy and breakdowns of distress specifically in real estate and healthcare.
Here are three things to know from the report:
1. Southwestern states have been hit the hardest by healthcare bankruptcy filings. For example, increased competition, insurance payer pressure and overexpansion contributed to Neighbors Legacy Holdings in Houston, a freestanding emergency facility operator with more than 30 facilities, to file for bankruptcy earlier this year.
2. While general Chapter 11 bankruptcies have decreased 53 percent from the 2010 benchmark, healthcare industry distress increased by 305 percent during the same period.
3. The law firm’s Health Care Services Distress Research Index was 405 for the third quarter of 2018, an increase of 65 points from the second quarter of 2018. The third-quarter figures represent a year-over-year increase of 82 points.
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The potential health and economic consequences of a trend associated with states that have turned down Medicaid expansion.
Hospitals are often thought of as the hubs of our health care system. But hospital closings are rising, particularly in some communities.
“Options are dwindling for many rural families, and remote communities are hardest hit,” said Katy Kozhimannil, an associate professor and health researcher at the University of Minnesota.
Beyond the potential health consequences for the people living nearby, hospital closings can exact an economic toll, and are associated with some states’ decisions not to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.
Since 2010, nearly 90 rural hospitals have shut their doors. By one estimate, hundreds of other rural hospitals are at risk of doing so.
In its June report to Congress, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission found that of the 67 rural hospitals that closed since 2013, about one-third were more than 20 miles from the next closest hospital.
A study published last year in Health Affairs by researchers from the University of Minnesota found that over half of rural counties now lack obstetric services. Another study, published in Health Services Research, showed that such closures increase the distance pregnant women must travel for delivery.
And another published earlier this year in JAMA found that higher-risk, preterm births are more likely in counties without obstetric units. (Some hospitals close obstetric units without closing the entire hospital.)
Ms. Kozhimannil, a co-author of all three studies, said, “What’s left are maternity care deserts in some of the most vulnerable communities, putting pregnant women and their babies at risk.”
In July, after The New York Times wrote about the struggles of rural hospitals, some doctors responded by noting that rising malpractice premiums had made it, as one put it, “economically infeasible nowadays to practice obstetrics in rural areas.”
Many other types of specialists tend to cluster around hospitals. When a hospital leaves a community, so can many of those specialists. Care for mental health and substance use are among those most likely to be in short supply after rural hospital closures.
The closure of trauma centers has also accelerated since 2001, and disproportionately in rural areas, according to a study in Health Affairs. The resulting increased travel time for trauma cases heightens the risk of adverse outcomes, including death.
Another study found that greater travel time to hospitals is associated with higher mortality rates for coronary artery bypass graft patients.
In many communities, hospitals are among the largest employers. They also draw other businesses to an area, including those within health care and others that support it (like laundry and food services, or construction).
A study in Health Services Research found that when a community loses its only hospital, per capita income falls by about 4 percent, and the unemployment increases by 1.6 percentage points.
Not all closures are problematic. Some are in areas with sufficient hospital capacity. Moreover, in many cases hospitals that close offer relatively poorer quality care than nearby ones that remain open. This forces patients into higher-quality facilities and may offset negative effects associated with the additional distance they must travel.
Perhaps for these reasons, one study published in Health Affairs found no effect of hospital closures on mortality for Medicare patients. Because it focused on older patients, the study may have missed adverse effects on those younger than 65. Nevertheless, the study found that hospital closings were associated with reduced readmission rates, which is regarded as a sign of increased quality. So it seems consolidating services at larger hospitals can sometimes help, not harm, patients.
“There are real trade-offs between consolidating expertise at larger centers versus maintaining access in local communities,” said Karen Joynt Maddox, a cardiologist and health researcher with the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and an author of the study. “The problem is that we don’t have a systematic approach to determine which services are critical to provide locally, and which are best kept at referral centers.”
Many factors can underlie the financial decision to close a hospital. Rural populations are shrinking, and the trend of hospital mergers and acquisitions can contribute to closures as services are consolidated.
Another factor: Over the long term, we are using less hospital care as more services are shifted to outpatient settings and as inpatient care is performed more rapidly. In 1960, an average appendectomy required over six days in the hospital; today one to two days is the norm.
Part of the story is political: the decision by many red states not to take advantage of federal funding to expand Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act. Some states cited fiscal concerns for their decisions, but ideological opposition to Obamacare was another factor.
In rural areas, lower incomes and higher rates of uninsured people contribute to higher levels of uncompensated hospital care — meaning many people are unable to pay their hospital bills. Uncompensated care became less of a problem in hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid.
In a Commonwealth Fund Issue Brief, researchers from Northwestern Kellogg School of Management found that hospitals in Medicaid expansion states saved $6.2 billion in uncompensated care, with the largest reductions in states with the highest proportion of low-income and uninsured patients. Consistent with these findings, the vast majority of recent hospital closings have been in states that have not expanded Medicaid.
In every year since 2011, more hospitals have closed than opened. In 2016, for example, 21 hospitals closed, 15 of them in rural communities. This month, another rural hospital in Kansas announced it was closing, and next week people in Kansas, and in some other states, will vote in elections that could decide whether Medicaid is expanded.
Richard Lindrooth, a professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, led a study in Health Affairs on the relationship between Medicaid expansion and hospitals’ financial health. Hospitals in nonexpansion states took a financial hit and were far more likely to close. In the continuing battle within some states about whether or not to expand Medicaid, “hospitals’ futures hang in the balance,” he said.
Declining inpatient admissions and reimbursement cuts have taken a toll on rural hospitals. Since 2010, 86 rural hospitals have closed, and 44% of those remaining are operating at a loss — up from 40% in 2017.
CMS Administrator Seema Verma released a rural health strategy in May aimed at improving access and quality of care in rural communities. Among its objectives are expanding telemedicine, empowering patients in rural areas to take responsibility for their health and leveraging partnerships to advance rural health goals.
The agency also expanded its Rural Community Hospital Demonstration from 17 to 30 hospitals. The program reimburses hospitals for the actual cost of inpatient services rather than standard Medicare rate, which could be as little as 80% of actual cost.
Such initiatives can be helpful, but if a hospital can’t make ends meet on its Medicare and Medicaid businesses and has only a modicum of privately insured patients, “that’s just not a balance that works financially,” Diane Calmus, government affairs and policy manager at the National Rural Health Association, told Healthcare Dive recently.
In all, 49 rural hospitals closed in the South, or 77% of rural hospital closures from 2013 through 2017, according to GAO. Texas had the most closures with 14, followed by Tennessee with eight and Georgia and Mississippi, each with five. By contrast, there were eight rural hospital closures in the Midwest and four each in the West and Northeast.
GAO also looked at closures by Medicare rural hospital payment designation. Critical access hospitals made up 36% of rural hospital closures, 30% were hospitals receiving Medicare standard inpatient payment, 25% had Medicare-dependent hospital designation and 9% were sole community hospitals.
To aid rural hospitals and ensure access for patients, NRHA has urged CMS to adopt a common sense approach to the “exclusive use” standard and lobbied lawmakers to pass legislation eliminating the 96-hour condition of payment requirement, two policies that are particularly hard on rural providers.
Another bill, the Save Rural Hospitals Act, would reverse reimbursement cuts to rural hospitals, provide other regulatory relief and establish the community outpatient hospital, a new provider type offering 24/7 emergency services plus outpatient and primary care.
More than 15 percent of U.S. hospitals have weak financial metrics or are at risk of potential closure, according to Business Insider, which cited a recent report from Morgan Stanley.
Morgan Stanley analyzed data from more than 6,000 hospitals and found 600 of the hospitals were “weak” based on criteria for margins for earnings before interest and other items, occupancy and revenue, according to Bloomberg. The analysis revealed another 450 hospitals were at risk of potential closure, according to Business Insider.
Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania had the highest concentration of hospitals in the “at risk” pool, according to the report.
Industry M&A may be no savior as the pace of hospital closures, particularly in hard-to-reach rural areas, seems poised to accelerate.
Hospitals have been closing at a rate of about 30 a year, according to the American Hospital Association, and patients living far from major cities may be left with even fewer hospital choices as insurers push them toward online providers like Teladoc Inc. and clinics such as CVS Health Corp’s MinuteClinic.
Morgan Stanley analysts led by Vikram Malhotra looked at data from roughly 6,000 U.S. private and public hospitals and concluded eight percent are at risk of closing; another 10 percent are considered “weak.” The firm defined weak hospitals based on criteria for margins for earnings before interest and other items, occupancy and revenue. The “at risk” group was defined by capital expenditures and efficiency, among others.
The next year to 18 months should see an increase in shut downs, Malhotra said in a phone interview.
The risks are coming following years of mergers and acquisitions. The most recent deal saw Apollo Global Management LLC swallowing rural hospital chain LifePoint Health Inc. for $5.6 billion last month. Apollo declined to comment on the deal; LifePoint has until Aug. 22 to solicit other offers. Consolidation among other health-care players, such as CVS’s planned takeover of insurer Aetna Inc., could also pressure hospitals as payers push patients toward outpatient services.
There are already a lot of hospitals with high negative margins, consultancy Veda Partners health care policy analyst Spencer Perlman said, and that’s going to become unsustainable. Rural hospitals with a smaller footprint may have less room to negotiate rates with managed care companies and are often hobbled by more older and poorer patients.
Also wearing away at margins are technological improvements that allow patients to get more surgeries and imaging done outside of the hospital. They are also likely to be forced to pay more to attract and retain doctors in key areas, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Jason McGorman said.
They “are getting eaten alive from these market trends,” Perlman cautioned.
Future M&A options could be too late — buyers may hesitate as debt laden operators like Community Health Systems Inc. and Tenet Healthcare Corp. focus on selling underperforming sites to reduce leverage, Morgan Stanley’s Zachary Sopcak said.
The light at the end of the tunnel is some hospitals are rising to the occasion, Perlman said. Some acute care facilities are restructuring as outpatient emergency clinics with free-standing emergency departments. “Microhospitals,” or facilities with ten beds or less, are another trend that may hold promise.
When most hospitals close, it’s plain to see. Equipment and fixtures are hauled out and carted away. Doctors and nurses leave and buildings are shuttered, maybe demolished.
But another fate befalling U.S. hospitals is almost invisible. Across the country, conglomerates that control an increasing share of the market are changing their business models, consolidating services in one regional “hub” hospital and cutting them from others.
In recent years, hospitals across the country have seen their entire inpatient departments closed — no patients staying the night, no nursery, no place for the sickest of the sick to recover. These facilities become, in essence, outpatient clinics.
Hospital executives see these cuts as sound business decisions, and say they are the inevitable consequence of changes in how people are using medical services. But to patients and local leaders who joined forces with these larger health networks just years ago, they feel more like broken promises: Not only are they losing convenient access to care, their local hospitals are also getting drained of revenue and jobs that sustain their communities.
“It’s not even just betrayal. It’s disgust, frankly,” said Mariah Lynne, a resident of Albert Lea, Minn., where Mayo Clinic is removing most inpatient care and the birthing unit from one of its hospitals. “Never would I have expected a brand of this caliber to be so callous.”
In 2015, the most recent year of data, these service reductions accounted for nearly half of the hospital closures recorded around the country, according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. (By MedPac’s definition, the loss of inpatient wards is equivalent to closure.) These data do not capture more discreet closures of surgical and maternity units that are also happening at local hospitals.
And the trend doesn’t just affect nearby residents. It represents a slow-moving but seismic shift in the idea of the community hospital — the place down the street where you could go at any hour, and for any need. Does the need for that hospital still exist, or is it a nostalgic holdover? And if it is still needed, is it economically viable?
The effort to scale back inpatient care is occurring within some of the nation’s most prestigious nonprofit hospitals.
Mayo Clinic announced last summer that it would cease almost all inpatient care at its hospital in Albert Lea. The health network said it would keep the emergency department open, but send most other patients to Austin, 23 miles east.
In Massachusetts, sprawling Partners HealthCare said it will shut the only hospitalin Lynn, a city of 92,000 people near Boston, and instead direct patients to its hospital in neighboring Salem. Only urgent care and outpatient services will remain in Lynn.
And in Ohio, Cleveland Clinic has made similar moves. In 2016, it closed its hospital in Lakewood, a densely packed Cleveland suburb. It is replacing the hospital with a family health center and emergency department.
The cuts follow a period of rapid consolidation in the health care industry. Of the 1,412 hospital mergers in the U.S. between 1998 and 2015, nearly 40 percent occurred after 2009, according to data published recently in the journal Health Affairs.
As large providers have expanded their networks, they have also gained inpatient beds that are no longer in demand — thanks to improved surgical techniques and other improvements that are shortening hospital stays. Hence the closures.
But the hollowing-out of historic community hospitals has surfaced fundamental tensions between providers and the cities and towns they serve. Residents are voicing frustration with large health networks that build expensive downtown campuses, charge the highest prices, and then cut services in outlying communities they deem unprofitable.
Health scholars also note a growing dissonance between the nonprofit status of these hospitals and their increasing market power. While the nonprofits continue to claim tens of millions of dollars a year in tax breaks to serve the sick and vulnerable, some are functioning more like monopolies with the clout to shift prices and services however they wish.
“These providers say they are worth the high price and that in the American system, if you have a reputation for excellence, you deserve higher fees,” said Dr. Robert Berenson, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “My response to that would be, if we had a well-functioning market, that might make some sense. But we don’t.”
The financial upheaval in community hospitals is driven by sweeping changes in the delivery of care. Procedures and conditions that once required lengthy hospitalizations now require only outpatient visits.
At Mayo Clinic, Dr. Annie Sadosty knows this evolution well because it roughly traces her career. She uses appendectomies as an example. Twenty-five years ago, when she was in medical school, the procedure was performed through a 5-inch incision and resulted in a weeklong hospitalization.
Today, the same procedure is done laparoscopically, through a much smaller incision, resulting in a recovery time of about 24 hours. “Some people don’t even stay in the hospital,” Sadosty said.
Something similar could be said for a wide range of medical procedures and services — from knee replacements to the removal of prostate glands in cancer patients. Hospital stays are either being eliminated or reduced to one or two days. And patients who were once routinely admitted for conditions like pneumonia are now sent home and managed remotely.
“Hospitals that used to be full of patients with common problems are no longer as full,” said Sadosty, an emergency medicine physician at Mayo and regional vice president of operations. “It’s been a breakneck pace of innovation and change that has led to a necessary evolution in the way that we care for people.”
That evolution has cratered demand for inpatient beds. In 2017, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission noted that hospital occupancy is hovering around 62 percent, though the number of empty beds varies from region to region.
In Albert Lea, Mayo administrators said the changes at the hospital will only impact about seven inpatients a day. Currently, caring for those patients requires nursing staff, hospitalists, and other caregivers, not to mention overhead associated with operating a hospital around the clock. The financial result is predictable: Hospital executives reported that jointly Albert Lea and Austin hospitals have racked up $13 million in losses over the last two years.
With inpatient demand declining, hospital administrators decided to consolidate operations in Austin. The decision meant the removal of Albert Lea’s intensive care unit, inpatient surgeries, and the labor and delivery unit. Behavioral health services will be consolidated in Albert Lea.
Cleveland Clinic described similar pressures. Dr. J. Stephen Jones, president of the clinic’s regional hospital and family health centers, said use of inpatient beds has declined rapidly in Lakewood, dropping between 5 and 8 percent a year over the last decade. By 2015, 94 percent of visits were for outpatient services — a change that was undermining financial performance. The hospital lost about $46.5 million on operations that year, according to the clinic’s financial statements, and its aging infrastructure was in need of repair.
“Hospitals are very expensive places to run,” Jones said. “Lakewood was losing money on an operating basis for at least five years” before this decision was made.
But the service cuts in Albert Lea, Lynn, and Lakewood — backed by nearly identical narratives from hospital executives — provoked the same reaction from the communities surrounding them.
Residents accused the hospital chains of putting their bottom lines above the needs of patients. Even if these individual hospitals were losing money, they said, nonprofits have an overriding mission to serve their communities.
“Why is profit such a priority, and more of a priority than the Hippocratic oath?” said Kevin Young, a spokesman for Save Lakewood Hospital, a group formed to oppose Cleveland Clinic’s removal of inpatient services. “Why are we allowing this to happen?”
The fight over Lakewood Hospital has persisted for more than three years, spawning lawsuits, an unsuccessful ballot referendum to keep the hospital open, and even a complaint filed by a former congressman to the Federal Trade Commission. None has caused Cleveland Clinic to reverse course.
Meanwhile, in Albert Lea, opponents to the service cuts have taken matters into their own hands: With Mayo refusing to back down, they are hunting to bring in a competitor.
A market analysis commissioned by Albert Lea’s Save Our Hospital group concluded that a full-service hospital could thrive in the community. The report included several caveats: A new provider would need to attract new physicians and capture market share from Mayo, a tall order in a region where Mayo is the dominant provider.
But members of the group said the findings directly contradict Mayo’s explanations to the community. They argue that, far from financially strained, the health system is simply trying to increase margins by shifting more money and services away from poorer rural communities.
“They don’t care what happens in Albert Lea,” said Jerry Collins, a member of the group. “Mayo cares what happens with its destination medical center.” He was referring to Mayo’s $6 billion project — funded with $585 million in taxpayer dollars — to expand its downtown Rochester campus and redevelop much of the property around it.
Sensitivity to Mayo’s service reductions is heightened by its control of the market in Southeastern Minnesota. It is by far the largest provider in the region and charges higher prices than facilities in other parts of the state. A colonoscopy at Mayo’s hospital in Albert Lea costs $1,595, compared to $409 at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, according to Minnesota HealthScores, a nonprofit that tracks prices. The gap is even bigger for a back MRI: $3,000 in Albert Lea versus $589 at Allina Health Clinics in Minneapolis.
“All of Southeast Minnesota is feeling the domination of one large corporation,” said Al Arends, who chairs fundraising for Save Our Hospital. “They are ignoring the economic impact on the community and on the health care for patients.”
The community’s loud resistance has drawn the attention of the state’s attorney general and governor, as well as U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, who has begun a series of “facilitated dialogues” between Mayo and its opponents in Albert Lea.
So far, the dialogue has failed to forge a compromise. Mayo is proceeding with its plans. It has relocated the hospital’s intensive care unit to Austin, and inpatient surgeries and labor and delivery services are planned to follow.
Mayo executives reject the notion that they are abandoning Albert Lea or compromising services. The hospital plans to renovate the Albert Lea cancer wing and beef up outpatient care, improvements executives say have gotten lost amid the criticism.
As for inpatient care, they say, Mayo must consider quality and safety issues. With the hospital in Albert Lea only admitting a handful of patients a day, caregivers’ skills are likely to diminish, potentially undermining quality. They also cited recruiting challenges.
“It’s difficult to outfit both [Albert Lea and Austin] hospitals with all the incumbent equipment, expertise, multidisciplinary teams, and nursing staff,” vice president Sadosty said. “This is one way we can preserve and elevate care, and do it in an affordable way so our patients have access to high-quality care as close to their homes as possible.”
Efforts to regionalize medical services also pose a new challenge: Can hospitals transport patients fast enough — and coordinate their care well enough — to ensure that no one falls through the cracks?
It is a question that will face stroke victims and expectant mothers who now must drive greater distances, sometimes in treacherous conditions, to make it to the hospital on time.
In Massachusetts, Partners HealthCare will face that test as it moves inpatient and emergency care from Union Hospital in Lynn to North Shore Medical Center in Salem. The hospitals are less than 6 miles apart. However, the short distance belies the difficulty of coordinating service across it.
Ambulances will have fewer options in emergencies. And if residents drive themselves to the wrong place in a panic, precious time gets wasted.
Dr. David Roberts, president of North Shore Medical Center, said the health system is working to educate patients to ensure that they go to the correct facility. He added that Partners already conducts risk assessments of patients with severe medical problems, and transfers them to hospitals with higher-level care when necessary.
In cases of suspected stroke, Roberts said, Partners employs a telemedicine program in which patients who arrive in its emergency rooms are examined by physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “They instantly, based on imaging, can decide which patient might benefit from having a clot pulled out of an artery in their head,” Roberts said. “They can say, ‘Yeah, this patient needs to be in our radiology suite in the next 30 minutes, and they make that happen.”
Still, opponents of the closure say it raises a broader concern about whether Partners’s actions are driven by a financial strategy to shift care away from low-income communities with higher concentrations of uninsured patients and those on Medicaid, which pays less for hospital services than commercial insurers. Union Hospital serves a largely low-income population.
“Why don’t we see these cuts across the Partners system? Why are we only seeing it in Lynn?” said Dianne Hills, a member of the Lynn Health Task Force. “Are we moving into a world where you have two systems of care — one for the poor and the old, and another for the affluent?”
Roberts said the consolidation at North Shore Medical Center in Salem has nothing to do with the income level of population in Lynn. He said the hospitals serve “identical” mixes of patients with government and commercial insurances.
“Our payer mix at both hospitals is adverse,” he said. “And despite that, Partners invested $208 million” to support the expansion of North Shore Medical Center.
Roberts acknowledged that the closure of the hospital in Lynn will have a negative impact on the city’s economy. But he said construction of a $24 million outpatient complex will mitigate some of that damage. The facility is expected to open in 2019. “It doesn’t take away the sting of losing a hospital,” Roberts said. “I’m hoping the [new] building goes a long way. We’re going to grow it as a vibrant medical village.”
Meanwhile, Mayo is proceeding with its changes in Albert Lea. Executives have assured Albert Lea residents that they will receive the same level of care for emergency services and upgraded facilities for outpatient care.
But some community members said they are already noticing problems with Mayo’s regionalization. One local pharmacist, Curt Clarambeau, said he can’t get timely responses to reports of adverse drug reactions. A call to the hospital in Albert Lea results in several phone transfers and no immediate response.
“It’s just impossible. It takes days,” Clarambeau said. “They’re trying to create efficiencies by not having everyone calling the doctors, but there are certain things we need to talk to them about.”
Don Sorensen, 79, said he’s also had trouble getting access to doctors at the hospital in Albert Lea. He said began to suffer from severe knee pain in November, but couldn’t get an appointment. His wife was put on hold for 40 minutes before learning the earliest appointment was still several days away.
At the suggestion of his RV repairman, Sorensen called a clinic in Minneapolis and got an appointment the same day. His wife, Eleanor, drove him, and he ended up with a brace, a prescription, and another follow up appointment.
But the couple is worried about continuing to make the drive if the logjam persists in Albert Lea. “We used to feel secure because we had Mayo here,” Eleanor Sorensen said. “We could get the care we needed. But now everybody our age feels very very vulnerable.”
This week Maine voted to become the 32nd state to expand Medicaid despite opposition by Gov. Paul LePage, who had vetoed five previous expansion bills passed by the state legislature and has now threatened to block the results of the ballot initiative. Unless Mr. LePage succeeds, about 80,000 more Mainers will be eligible for coverage, a victory in an unsettling year for health care in America.
With the Affordable Care Act under constant threat from the Trump administration and out-of-pocket costs rising faster than wages, health care topped the list of the most important issues facing Americans this year.
However, Maine and other rural states face a health care crisis that Medicaid expansion can’t fix on its own. It’s not about affordable coverage; it’s about access: For too many rural areas, doctors and hospitals are scarce.
In the postwar era, America made hospital construction and modernization a priority. On Aug. 13, 1946, Harry Truman signed the Hill-Burton Act,giving communities grants and loans for hospital construction. By 1975, almost one-third of American hospitals owed their creation to the law. Financing for Hill-Burton health care construction ended in 1997, but one rule from the original bill still applied: These hospitals had to give free or reduced care to people who couldn’t afford services. As rural areas aged and the population shrank because of manufacturing’s decline and the rise of a technology-driven economy centered on urban areas, hospitals struggled to stay in operation.
Under the Affordable Care Act, hospitals started shutting down at worrisome rates because of an increase in financial penalties for noncompliance with A.C.A. mandates, the cost of tighter reporting standards and smaller reimbursements for certain procedures. Since the A.C.A. became law in 2010, over 80 rural hospitals have closed nationwide. Maine alone has lost three hospitals in that time, about 10 percent of its rural total.
If closings continue at this rate, 25 percent of America’s rural hospitals will have disappeared in the decade after Obamacare’s passage. This does not take into account facility deterioration, doctor departures or department closures.
This is a big problem for Maine, which has the highest percentage of rural residents in the country, according to the most recent census data. Calais Regional Hospital in Down East Maine recently oversaw its last childbirth. The obstetrics department closed in late summer, forcing women in labor to drive 50 minutes to deliver their babies. Despite an opioid crisis that increases the chance of high-risk pregnancies, this same privately owned hospital shut down its pediatrics wing and intensive care unit in recent years, because of financial pressure from the management company halfway across the country in Tennessee.
This was hardly an isolated example in Maine. The town of Jackman closed its 24-hour emergency room in September, and Boothbay lost its only hospital in 2013. Rangeley, where my wife’s family lives, is an hour away from the nearest hospital and has no doctor in town.
Meanwhile, Maine Med in Portland, Maine’s largest city, is about to break ground for a $512 million addition just a few years after it finished a $40 million renovation. While rural Maine’s hospitals and departments are closing because of large losses, Maine Med had, for 2016, a $61 million surplus.
Medicaid expansion is a welcome source of new revenue to rural hospitals in Maine because more insured patients mean fewer uncompensated treatments. Still, it comes nowhere close to fixing the problem or, politically, putting any meaningful points on the Democratic scoreboard.
In 2016, Donald Trump won Maine’s rural congressional district by a 10-point margin and rural counties in America at large by a 26-point marginon a message of repealing and replacing Obamacare. As Maggie Elehwany of the National Rural Health Association said in an NPR interview this year, rural Americans voted for Mr. Trump in part because of health care. “They see their hospitals closing,” she noted. “And one hospital C.E.O. described it as a three-pronged stool. It’s the churches, the hospitals and the schools. If you lose one of those legs of that stool, the whole community collapses.”
Since President Trump hasn’t been able to deliver on any meaningful legislation to support rural voters, it is the Democrats’ time to deliver. One good step is a bill sponsored by the Democratic senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and Michael Bennet of Colorado called Medicare-X. It would give a public option to Americans in rural counties where limited competition has yielded higher-priced health insurance options.
It still doesn’t solve the heart of the rural problem. Democrats can’t just lower premiums and expand Medicaid. We must strengthen rural communities by making access to high-quality health care services a priority of any proposal. In any future legislation, we should demand grants for new hospitals, funds to modernize crumbling ones and financial incentives for top doctors to work in these areas. This will not only make rural communities healthier, but also more welcoming for growth and new business.
No person suffering from a heart attack should die because a hospital is too far. No pregnant mother should have to risk the health of her baby because she can’t make it to a delivery room in time. As Democrats, we believe that health care is a right. It would be a big mistake to expand health care insurance but offer no place to use it.