In Rural Areas, One Thing Is 'Worse Than Murder'

Hospital closings can be devastating
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted May 26, 2018 5:00 PM CDT
Rural Hospital Closings Are 'Worse Than Murder'
Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal speaks after he completed a walk from Belhaven, NC, to the legislature in Raleigh, NC, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015.   (Chris Seward/The News & Observer via AP)

When Barry Gibbs' wife had a heart attack two years ago, the North Carolina man couldn't take her to the hospital in nearby Belhaven—because it had closed. Should he drive her 60 miles east to one town or 70 miles west to another? Neither seemed close enough. But his dilemma isn't unique in a country where 83 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2010 in an ongoing financial crisis, the Guardian reports. The problem: Many rural people have contract jobs without insurance, so hospitals often pay for the neediest, especially in states that rejected the Medicaid expansion under ObamaCare. Now urban hospitals are averaging 6% annual profit and rural hospitals only 2%. And as the former mayor of Belhaven learned, the politics of it can get ugly.

Adam O'Neal, who served as mayor for 12 years, staged protest walks when the medical consortium Vidant Health prepared to close the hospital for losing money. "It’s worse than murder," says O’Neal. "Everybody who needs emergency care and is dying is being murdered by Vidant." The consortium did build a $5.9 million multispecialty clinic after closing the hospital, but that left Belmont without all-important emergency care. On the federal level, Sen. Chuck Grassley has introduced a bill to let small, rural hospitals save money by offering only emergency care and transferring other patients, so that's in the pipeline, per UPI. But it's too late for Barry Gibbs, whose wife Portia died on the way to the hospital. He sprinkled her ashes outside his home. (More hospitals stories.)

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