House Subcommittee Takes Dim View of Healthcare Consolidation

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/strategy/house-subcommittee-takes-dim-view-healthcare-consolidation

Lawmakers and witnesses alike cited the ill-effects of hospital mergers and acquisitions in a long list of industry behavior they find troubling.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

An economics and health policy professor from Carnegie Mellon suggested lawmakers should give the FTC more power to review nonprofit mergers.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle expressed dissatisfaction with the healthcare industry’s consolidation trend and voiced support for legislative action.

A hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee would not have been a comfortable place Thursday for any healthcare executive touting the benefits of a planned merger or acquisition.

Lawmakers and witnesses took turns criticizing rampant consolidation among hospitals and other healthcare companies. While the public is often told these deals will lead to improved efficiency and higher quality care, those purported benefits frequently fail to materialize, they said.

Since the hearing grouped payer and provider consolidation with anticompetitive concerns about the pharmaceutical industry—an area that both major parties have expressed interest in addressing through congressional action—the discussion could signal how lawmakers will approach any legislation to address the problems they perceive.

Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia and the committee’s ranking member, said hospital consolidation has had an especially detrimental impact on rural communities in his state.


“These communities often already have few options for quality care, so as hospital consolidation has increased over the past 10 years, rural communities like my own have been hurt the most,” Collins said.

“At times, these mergers and acquisitions can help rural communities by keeping facilities open, but often they result in full or partial closures and shifting patients from nearby facilities to those hours away,” he added.

Some problems caused by consolidation, such as increased travel times for emergency services, can “literally mean the difference in life and death,” Collins said.

Jerry Nadler, a Democrat from New York and the committee’s chairman, said there’s no question that the recent spate of mergers has contributed to the industry’s problems.

“It is well documented that hospital mergers can lead to higher prices and lower quality of care,” Nadler said.

Martin Gaynor, PhD, an economics and health policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a founder of the Health Care Cost Institute, said in his testimony that there have been nearly 1,600 hospital mergers in the past 20 years, leading most regions to be dominated by one large health system apiece.

“This massive consolidation in healthcare has not delivered for Americans. It has not given us better care or enhanced efficiency,” Gaynor said. “On the contrary, extensive research evidence shows us that consolidation between close competitors results in higher prices, and patient quality of care suffers for lack of competition.”

Since hospitals that have fewer competitors can better negotiate favorable payment terms, this consolidated landscape “poses a serious challenge for payment reform,” he added.

“Our healthcare system is based on markets. That system is only going to work as well as the markets that underpin it,” Gaynor said. “Unfortunately, these markets do not function as well as they could or should.”

Gaynor recommended several possible policy changes, including an end to policies that make it harder for new competitors to enter a market and compete and an expanded authority for the Federal Trade Commission to review potentially anticompetitive conduct by nonprofit entities. He also said lawmakers should consider imposing FTC reporting requirements for even small transactions to enhance the tracking capabilities of enforcement agencies.

To support his claims, in his written testimony, Gaynor pointed to research he completed with Farzad Mostashari of Aledade Inc. and Paul B. Ginsburg of The Brookings Institution.

 

 

 

 

‘Who’s going to take care of these people?’

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The hospital had already transferred out most of its patients and lost half its staff when the CEO called a meeting to take inventory of what was left. Employees crammed into Tina Steele’s office at Fairfax Community Hospital, where the air conditioning was no longer working and the computer software had just been shut off for nonpayment.

“I want to start with good news,” Steele said, and she told them a food bank would make deliveries to the hospital and Dollar General would donate office supplies.

“So how desperate are we?” one employee asked. “How much money do we have in the bank?”

“Somewhere around $12,000,” Steele said.

“And how long will that last us?”

“Under normal circumstances?” Steele asked. She looked down at a chart on her desk and ran calculations in her head. “Probably a few hours,” she said. “Maybe a day at most.”

The staff had been fending off closure hour by hour for the past several months, ever since debt for the 15-bed hospital surpassed $1 million and its outside ownership group entered into bankruptcy, beginning a crisis in Fairfax that is becoming familiar across much of rural America. More than 100 of the country’s remote hospitals have gone broke and then closed in the past decade, turning some of the most impoverished parts of the United States into what experts now call “health-hazard zones,” and Fairfax was on the verge of becoming the latest. The emergency room was down to its final four tanks of oxygen. The nursing staff was out of basic supplies such as snakebite antivenin and strep tests. Hospital employees had not received paychecks for the past 11 weeks and counting.

The only reason the hospital had been able to stay open at all was that about 30 employees continued showing up to work without pay, increasing their hours to fill empty shifts and essentially donating time to the hospital, understanding what was at stake. Some of them had been born or had given birth at Fairfax Community. Several others had been stabilized and treated in the emergency room after heart attacks or accidents. There was no other hospital within 30 miles of two-lane roads and prairie in sprawling Osage County, which meant Fairfax Community was the only lifeline in a part of the country that increasingly needed rescuing.

“If we aren’t open, where do these people go?” asked a physician assistant, thinking about the dozens of patients he treated each month in the ER, including some in critical condition after drug overdoses, falls from horses, oil field disasters or car crashes.

“They’ll go to the cemetery,” another employee said. “If we’re not here, these people don’t have time. They’ll die along with this hospital.”

“We have no supplies,” Steele said. “We have nothing. How much longer can we provide quality care?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

As emergencies rise across rural America, a hospital fights for its lifeAs emergencies rise across rural America, a hospital fights for its life

 

ECONOMIC RIPPLES: HOSPITAL CLOSURE HURTS A TOWN’S ABILITY TO ATTRACT RETIREES

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/economic-ripples-hospital-closure-hurts-towns-ability-attract-retirees?utm_source=silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=ENL_190410_LDR_BRIEFING%20(1)&spMailingID=15444335&spUserID=MTY3ODg4NTg1MzQ4S0&spJobID=1620658993&spReportId=MTYyMDY1ODk5MwS2

The epidemic of rural hospital closures is threatening small towns such as Celina, Tenn. The town of 1,500 has been trying to position itself as a retiree destination but that task has grown more difficult since the March 1 closure of 25-bed Cumberland River Hospital.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

Celina became the 11th rural hospital in Tennessee to close in recent years — more than in any state but Texas. Both states have refused to expand Medicaid in a way that covers more of the working poor.

The closest hospital is now 18 miles away. That adds another 30 minutes through mountain roads for those who need an X-ray or bloodwork. For those in the back of an ambulance, that bit of time could mean the difference between life or death.

When a rural community loses its hospital, health care becomes harder to come by in an instant. But a hospital closure also shocks a small town’s economy. It shuts down one of its largest employers. It scares off heavy industry that needs an emergency room nearby. And in one Tennessee town, a lost hospital means lost hope of attracting more retirees.

Seniors, and their retirement accounts, have been viewed as potential saviors for many rural economies trying to make up for lost jobs. But the epidemic of rural hospital closures is threatening those dreams in places like Celina, Tenn. The town of 1,500, whose 25-bed hospital closed March 1, has been trying to position itself as a retiree destination.

“I’d say, look elsewhere,” said Susan Scovel, a Seattle transplant who arrived with her husband in 2015.

Scovel’s despondence is especially noteworthy given she leads the local chamber of commerce effort to attract retirees like herself. She considers the wooded hills and secluded lake to hold scenic beauty comparable to the Washington coast — with dramatically lower costs of living; she and a small committee plan getaway weekends for prospects to visit.

When she first toured the region before moving in 2015, Scovel and her husband, who had Parkinson’s, made sure to scope out the hospital, on a hill overlooking the sleepy town square. And she has rushed to the hospital four times since he died in 2017.

“I have very high blood pressure, and they’re able to do the IVs to get it down,” Scovel said. “This is an anxiety thing since my husband died. So now — I don’t know.”

She can’t in good conscience advise a senior with health problems to come join her in Celina, she said.

When Seconds Count, Delays In Care

Celina’s Cumberland River Hospital had been on life support for years, operated by the city-owned medical center an hour away in Cookeville, which decided in late January to cut its losses after trying to find a buyer. Cookeville Regional Medical Center executives explain that the facility faced the grim reality for many rural providers.

“Unfortunately, many rural hospitals across the country are having a difficult time and facing the same challenges, like declining reimbursements and lower patient volumes, that Cumberland River Hospital has experienced,” CEO Paul Korth said in a written statement.

Celina became the 11th rural hospital in Tennessee to close in recent years — more than in any state but Texas. Both states have refused to expand Medicaid in a way that covers more of the working poor. Even some Republicans now say the decision to not expand Medicaid has added to the struggles of rural health care providers.

The closest hospital is now 18 miles away. That adds another 30 minutes through mountain roads for those who need an X-ray or bloodwork. For those in the back of an ambulance, that bit of time could mean the difference between life or death.

“We have the capability of doing a lot of advanced life support, but we’re not a hospital,” said Natalie Boone, Clay County’s emergency management director.

The area is already limited in its ambulance service, with two of its four trucks out of service.

Once a crew is dispatched, Boone said, it’s committed to that call. Adding an hour to the turnaround time means someone else could likely call with an emergency and be told — essentially — to wait in line.

“What happens when you have that patient that doesn’t have that extra time?” Boone asked. “I can think of at least a minimum of two patients [in the last month] that did not have that time.”

Residents are bracing for cascading effects. Susan Bailey hasn’t retired yet, but she’s close. She has spent nearly 40 years as a registered nurse, including her early career at Cumberland River.

“People say, ‘You probably just need to move or find another place to go,'” she said.

Bailey and others are concerned that losing the hospital will soon mean losing the only three physicians in town. The doctors say they plan to keep their practices going, but for how long? And what about when they retire?

“That’s a big problem,” Bailey said. “The doctors aren’t going to want to come in and open an office and have to drive 20 or 30 minutes to see their patients every single day.”

Closure of the hospital means 147 nurses, aides and clerical staff have to find new jobs. Some employees come to tears at the prospect of having to find work outside the county and are deeply sad that their hometown is losing one of its largest employers — second only to the local school system.

Dr. John McMichen is an emergency physician who would travel to Celina to work weekends at the ER and give the local doctors a break.

“I thought of Celina as maybe the ‘Andy Griffith Show’ of healthcare,” he said.

McMichen, who also worked at the now-shuttered Copper Basin Medical Center, on the other side of the state, said people at Cumberland River knew just about anyone who would walk through the door. That’s why it was attractive to retirees.

“It reminded me of a time long ago that has seemingly passed. I can’t say that it will ever come back,” he said. “I have hopes that there’s still some hope for small hospitals in that type of community. But I think the chances are becoming less of those community hospitals surviving.”

 

“UNFORTUNATELY, RURAL HOSPITALS ACROSS THE COUNTRY ARE HAVING A DIFFICULT TIME AND FACE THE SAME CHALLENGES, LIKE DECLINING REIMBURSEMENTS AND LOWER PATIENT VOLUMES THAT CUMBERLAND RIVER HOSPITAL HAS EXPERIENCED.”

 

 

 

 

COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTERS MORE FINANCIALLY STABLE UNDER MEDICAID EXPANSION

https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/community-health-centers-more-financially-stable-under-medicaid-expansion?source=EHLM8&effort=B&utm_source=HealthLeaders&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=MeritWelcomeB&emailid=&utm_source=silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Warming-Merit-Finance-040319%20(1)&spMailingID=15443417&spUserID=Mzc4MjM1NTY0ODgyS0&spJobID=1620654151&spReportId=MTYyMDY1NDE1MQS2

Facilities are faring better in states that expanded Medicaid, according to a new Commonwealth Fund report.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

A year after facing a federal funding cliff, CHCs in expansion states are thriving. 

CHCs provide care to 27 million patients each year, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.

The financial stability of CHCs, which serve medically vulnerable communities, is a benefit for health systems.

Community health centers (CHC) operating in states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA are 28% more likely to report improvements to their financial stability, according to a Commonwealth Fund report released Thursday morning.

CHCs in Medicaid expansion states reported were more likely to report improvements in their ability to provide affordable care to patients, 76%, than their counterparts in non-expansion states, 52%.

More than 60% of CHCs in expansion states reported improved ability to fund service or site expansions and upgrades for facilities, while only 46% of CHCs in non-expansion states said the same.

These facilities reported higher levels of unfilled job openings for mental health professional and social workers, while also implying a greater openness to operating under a value-based payment model.

The success and viability of CHCs are essential for larger health systems, according to Melinda K. Abrams, M.S., vice president and director of the Commonwealth Fund’s Health Care Delivery System Reform program, adding that CHCs act as a strong foundation for providing primary care to medically vulnerable populations in rural communities.

Abrams said that by making sure patients are insured and receiving care up front, rather than delaying treatment and exacerbating their condition, they are less likely to end up in a hospital emergency room and contribute to a rise in uncompensated care for hospitals.

She also told HealthLeaders that populations with higher enrollment rates make it easier for CHCs to innovate, invest in technology, hire new staff, train existing the workforce, and adopt new models of care.

“[Medicaid expansion] makes it a lot easier to provide high-quality comprehensive care when [a CHC’s] patients have health insurance,” Abrams said. “In this particular instance, it’s a lot easier to innovate and have financial stability when you have more paying patients, which means that it is easier if you are [a CHC] in a state that has expanded Medicaid.”

The Commonwealth Fund report provides a welcome note of positivity for CHCs, which serve vulnerable populations primarily composed by the uninsured, but have faced funding challenges in the past.

During the budget battles that produced multiple government shutdowns throughout the early portion of 2018, advocates wondered anxiously whether Congress would provide long term funding to the nearly 1,400 CHCs operating at nearly 12,000 service delivery sites across the country.

According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, CHCs provide care to more than 27 million patients annually.

The Community Health Center Fund (CHCF), created in 2010 as a result of the ACA, is the largest source of comprehensive primary care for medically underserved communities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

However, Abrams said that Medicaid expansion has also been a beneficial tool for CHCs, as they have begun to see more insured patients while also benefiting from Medicaid reimbursements, even though they are low compared to other reimbursement rates.

CHCs in states that expanded Medicaid have been able to grow the services that are offered while assisting in the ongoing fight against the opioid epidemic, according to the Commonwealth Fund report.

Abrams said that one downside to the growing success of CHCs have been the unfilled positions, mostly for mental health providers, that are falling behind rising demand levels, though she added that this finding is not surprising.

“I think it’s in part because the supply of the workforce is lagging a little bit behind the demand,” Abrams said. “There’s no reason to think that over time that this gap wouldn’t be closed. But we did find that as a challenge, that [CHCs] have a lot of positions open [yet] they’re hiring. A number of these CHCs are in economically depressed areas, so the good news is that there are some jobs available.”

CHCs are much more likely to participate in value-based payment models as a result of Medicaid expansion, with Abrams explaining that changes in payments and delivery models are common during insurance expansions.

She sees the continued progress made on the value-based front by CHCs as a way to “promote better healthcare and save money” over time.

 

 

Nursing Homes Are Closing Across Rural America, Scattering Residents

Harold Labrensz spent much of his 89-year life farming and ranching the rolling Dakota plains along the Missouri River. His family figured he would die there, too.

But late last year, the nursing home in Mobridge, S.D., that cared for Mr. Labrensz announced that it was shutting down after a rocky history of corporate buyouts, unpaid bills and financial ruin. It had become one of the many nursing homes across the country that have gone out of business in recent years as beds go empty, money troubles mount and more Americans seek to age in their own homes.

For Mr. Labrensz, though, the closure amounted to an eviction order from his hometown. His wife, Ramona, said she could not find any nursing home nearby to take him, and she could not help him if he took a fall at home. So one morning in late January, as a snowstorm whited out the prairie, Mr. Labrensz was loaded into the back of a small bus and sent off on a 220-mile road trip to a nursing home in North Dakota.

“He didn’t want to go,” said Mrs. Labrensz, 87, who made the trip with her husband. “When we stopped for gas, he said, ‘Turn this thing around.’ ”

More than 440 rural nursing homes have closed or merged over the last decade, according to the Cowles Research Group, which tracks long-term care, and each closure scattered patients like seeds in the wind. Instead of finding new care in their homes and communities, many end up at different nursing homes far from their families.

In remote communities like Mobridge, an old railroad town of 3,500 people, there are few choices for an aging population. Home health aides can be scarce and unaffordable to hire around the clock. The few senior-citizen apartments have waiting lists. Adult children have long since moved away to bigger cities.

“How often have you heard somebody say, ‘If I go to a nursing home, just shoot me?’” said Stephen Monroe, a researcher and author who tracks aging in America. “In the rural areas, you don’t have options. There are no alternatives.”

The relocations can be traumatic for older residents, and the separation creates agonizing complications for families. Relatives say they have to cut back visits to one day a week. They spend hours on the road to see their spouses and parents.

“Before, I could just drop by five days a week,” said the Rev. Justin Van Orman, a Lutheran pastor who moved back to Mobridge to be closer to his 79-year-old father, Robert. “He knew I was there.”

Not long after Mr. Van Orman’s father moved from Mobridge to a new nursing home about 50 miles away, Mr. Van Orman got a call saying his father had fallen out of bed. Mr. Van Orman had to decide: Should he upend his day to check on him, or wait and take the nursing home’s word that his father was O.K.?

Similar scenes are playing out in other heavily rural states. Five nursing homes closed in Nebraska last year, with more at risk of closing. Six shut down in Maine — a record, according to the Bangor Daily News.

Thirty-six rural nursing homes across the country have been forced to close in the last decade because they failed to meet health and safety standards. But far more have collapsed for financial reasons, including changing health care policies that now encourage people to choose independent and assisted living or stay in their own homes with help from caregivers.

Some nursing homes cannot find people to do the low-paying work of caring for frail residents. Others are losing money as their occupancy rates fall and more of their patients’ long-term care is covered by Medicaid, which in many states does not pay enough to keep the lights on.

South Dakota chips in less than any other state in the nation to pay for long-term care for residents on Medicaid, said Mark B. Deak, executive director of the South Dakota Health Care Association. He added that the state’s low payment level — a product of South Dakota’s fiscal conservatism and distrust of government-run health care — has now created a crisis.

Five South Dakota nursing homes have shut down in the past three years, and dozens more are losing money because the majority of their residents rely on Medicaid. At current reimbursement rates, nursing homes in the state lose about $58 a day for each resident on Medicaid, Mr. Deak said. It adds up to $66 million a year in losses statewide.

“The state has not held up its obligation to seniors,” Mr. Deak said. “How many more nursing homes closing is it going to take?”

Gov. Kristi Noem has proposed a 5 percent increase in the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate. Mr. Deak said that would not be nearly enough to cover the losses.

The 89-bed Mobridge Care and Rehabilitation Center was rated overall as “below average” by Medicare’s Nursing Home Compare program, though for patient care, the home received four out of five stars in the agency’s assessment. The brown brick building was getting old, and had been damaged by a bad summer storm in 2018.

The nursing home had been part of a chain that switched hands and foundered financially, ultimately ending up in court-appointed receivership. In November, the receiver told a South Dakota judge that the chain’s operations were bleeding money, and that it needed to close down the two homes in the chain that were deepest in the red. Mobridge was one.

The South Dakota Department of Health did not object, and the judge agreed to the closure. Word began to spread through the home and through town: The residents had about two months to find somewhere else to go.

Black Hills Receiver, which had taken over operation of the nursing home, said in a November statement announcing the closure that it was working with residents, their families and employees “to make this transition as smooth as possible.” The company declined an interview request.

On paper, South Dakota and other rural states still have enough long-term care beds for people who need round-the-clock care. The problem is where they are. When a nursing home closes in a small town, the available beds are often so far away that elderly spouses cannot make the drive, and the transferred residents become cut off from the friends, church groups and relatives they have known all their lives.

Even the closest town can feel as though it is a world away when a blizzard rakes across the prairie and turns the two-lane road out of Mobridge into a billowing scarf of snow.

For six days this winter, Loretta Leonard could not make the 20-mile drive to see her husband, Dick, who is 91 and suffers from severe dementia, at his new nursing home. When he was living close by at the Mobridge home, she often visited him twice a day, sitting down at the piano to play the old polkas and hymns and Depression-era tunes their daughters sang growing up.

“He always knew me,” Ms. Leonard, 88, said. “Sometimes I wonder whether he knows me anymore.”

The part-time bus driver for the Mobridge nursing home began keeping a list as he dropped people at their new homes: “Residents Who Left.” One resident was moved to Aberdeen, 100 miles east. A husband and wife went 73 miles down Highway 12 to Ipswich. Roommates said goodbye. Fast friends landed in different homes. One person ended up in Nebraska.

“Like cattle,” said Nadine Alexander, a certified nursing assistant who worked at the Mobridge nursing home for 29 years. “They were just hauling them out.”

On the snowy day that Harold Labrensz left Mobridge for his new nursing home in North Dakota, not even the bus driver wanted to make the trip. For seven hours, they crept north along icy roads before arriving.

Mrs. Labrensz chose the facility because it was close to her son’s home, and she was able to find a small efficiency apartment just across the street from the nursing home. They spent 68 years together working their land, fishing and raising a family, and Mrs. Labrensz said she wanted to stay close.

“We spent our whole life together,” she said.

She was also close by when, three days after arriving in North Dakota, Mr. Labrensz died. The date was Jan. 31 — the same day that, 220 miles away, the Mobridge nursing home officially closed its doors.

 

 

 

 

Analysis Shows One-in-Five U.S. Rural Hospitals at High Risk of Closing Unless Financial Situation Improves

https://www.navigant.com/news/corporate-news/2019/rural-hospitals-analysis

https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/1-in-5-rural-hospitals-at-high-risk-of-closing-analysis-finds.html?origin=cioe&utm_source=cioe

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Twenty-one percent of U.S. rural hospitals are at high risk of closing unless their finances improve, according to an analysis from management consultancy firm Navigant.

The study also found 64 percent, or 277, of high financial risk rural hospitals are considered essential to their communities.

The analysis — which examined the financial viability (operating margin, days cash on hand and debt-to-capitalization ratio) and community essentiality of more than 2,000 of the nation’s rural hospitals — suggests 21 percent or 430 rural hospitals in 43 states are at high risk of closing. These hospitals represent 21,547 staffed beds, 707,000 annual discharges, 150,000 employees and $21.2 billion total patient revenue, according to Navigant.

Of the 43 states, 34 have five or more rural hospitals at risk. 

Navigant cited payer mix degradation; declining inpatient care driving excess capacity; and inability to leverage innovation as factors putting the hospitals at risk. Medicare payment reductions, the age of many rural facilities and a lack of capital to invest in updated, innovative technology were specifically cited.

“While the potential for a rural hospital crisis has been known for years, this predictive data sheds light on just how dire the situation could become,” the study authors concluded. “Now, by being able to accurately assess the economic health of all rural hospitals in America, there is no choice but to pay attention. Local, state and federal political leaders, as well as hospital administrators, must act to protect the well-being of rural hospitals nationwide and the communities they serve.”

Read more about the analysis here

 

A Sense of Alarm as Rural Hospitals Keep Closing

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.

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.