Eighth rural hospital to close since 2010

Yet another rural Georgia hospital is going under, in one of the state’s poorest counties.

The company that owns Jenkins Medical Center in Millen announced this week that the hospital would shut down after decades in operation. Patients who can afford the gas or the time for an ambulance ride may now go to the company’s hospital in Screven County 20 miles away.

IN-DEPTH: Crisis for Georgia rural hospitals

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It’s the eighth acute care rural hospital to shutter in Georgia since 2010, as communities face increasing numbers of poor and uninsured patients.

As in some other cases of hospitals closing, Jenkins County hasn’t seen a significan population decline. Rather, the hospital was a victim of its own problems and several gaping financial holes afflicting the health care economy across the state.

  • The federal government’s stinting reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid squeezed the hospital’s finances.
  • Georgia declined to expand Medicaid after Obamacare assumed states would, leaving poor counties like Jenkins rife with very poor patients who have no insurance.
  • The hospital went private, but the business plan didn’t work and the new owners made mistakes.

“We’re just kind of devastated,” said King Rocker, chairman of the Jenkins County Development Authority and a lifelong county resident.

Rocker recounted the story of a local man who recently had a heart attack in Millen. “He wouldn’t have made it,” Rocker said. “But he was in our emergency room. What are we going to do next time when we don’t have an emergency room? It’s — it’s a big deal. A big deal.”

“If you have an emergency close to home, 20 miles to the next hospital could be life or death,” said Ethan James, vice president of the Georgia Hospital Association.

Closing Jenkins Medical Center will eliminate 55 jobs. The company that owns it, Optim Health System, will continue to operate a local clinic that’s open during business hours.

Such closures economically devastate rural communities, where hospitals are often an employment anchor for skilled jobs and a draw for other employers. And closing a hospital doesn’t get rid of the area’s problem of uninsured and underinsured patients, James said.

“When the facility closes, the patients don’t magically go away,” he said. “They go on to the next closest facility, which further burdens the next facility and the system.”

Jenkins Medical CEO Bob Sellers was blunt about the perfect storm of problems that afflicted the hospital.

The county has one of the lowest incomes in Georgia, with an average household making roughly $24,600 a year, half the state’s average.

That means the hospital depends on Medicare and Medicaid payments, and those reimbursements have become unsustainably low, Sellers said. A major reason the Screven County hospital is the one to survive even though it’s older, he said, is that Screven County has higher incomes.

“We determined based on that financial and demographic analysis that our best chance to provide quality care was merging the Jenkins facility into the Screven facility,” Sellers said.

Some locals are bitter about the fact that private ownership is closing a hospital that at least tread water before.

Optim, which used to be owned by Georgia doctors, made one big mistake at the beginning. The doctors assumed that when they bought the hospital they’d be able to refer their own patients to it and make money on both ends. But in fact, a federal law had just been passed that forbids such financial relationships. They would be forbidden for sending their own patients there.

Then there is the infrastructure of the 1974 building, a chief cause cited in the announcement of the closure. Sellers counts air handling and humidity control as the biggest single infrastructure problem. But Optim bought a $125,000 air unit with a grant that local officials helped them get. Only to find that they couldn’t use it if they didn’t also spend $250,000 to fix the duct work, money they didn’t have. The new unit sat uninstalled.

Whatever the causes, it’s done now, with closure scheduled for June 24.

Rocker said the impact on community development would spiral.

“I mean, when new people look at a community, whether it be new people moving in as residents or new industries, the two things they look at is the school system and the hospital,” he said. “It’s really a convenience we all take for granted. It’s always been there, you know?”

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