Shuttered Hospitals Leave Rural Communities Vulnerable to COVID-19

Since 2005, more than 150 rural hospitals have closed across the U.S., often because they are unable to produce enough revenue in areas with dwindling populations. Some community hospitals merge with for-profit chains as a last resort, but these hospitals are more likely to close: a federal study shows that for-profit facilities accounted for 11% of rural hospitals but 36% of closures. For-profit rural hospitals are also less likely to offer necessary but less profitable services, like hospice and inpatient psychiatry.

In March, Fairmont Regional Medical Center, which serviced a rural section of West Virginia, was one of three hospitals in the area that have closed since September 2019, including Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling, WV, and East Ohio Regional Hospital in nearby Martins Ferry, OH. All three facilities had been acquired by the for-profit hospital chain Alecto Healthcare Services in the past 6 years. The closures mean this region will face the coronavirus outbreak with 530 fewer hospital beds than last year.

After acquiring these hospitals, Alecto laid off staff physicians across all facilities. Although they saved on salary costs, the hospitals lost the ability to perform elective surgeries, an important revenue generator. Ohio Valley lost its level-two trauma center status, since it no longer had a full-time plastic surgeon or neurosurgeon. Staff at all three hospitals reported regular supply shortages that impeded care.

Within three weeks of closing Ohio Valley in September 2019, Alecto shuttered East Ohio. Combined with Fairmont’s shutdown in March as the coronavirus outbreak began to spread in the U.S., the closures left 1,800 people unemployed and local governments fighting to recoup Alecto’s unpaid taxes and fees.

Without these facilities, patients in this isolated region have struggled to find new providers or have been re-directed to hospitals several hours away. West Virginia University’s health-care system, located 12 miles from Fairmont, plans to reopen part of the Fairmont hospital later this spring. Until then, these communities, which have already recorded more than 170 coronavirus cases and at least nine deaths, will be forced to face the pandemic without enough hospital beds for the foreseeable future.

Source: The New York Times, April 27, 2020.