A Sense of Alarm as Rural Hospitals Keep Closing

“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.

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