Twenty rural hospitals closed their doors last year likely due to the financial hardships caused by the pandemic. According to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina, that number broke the previous record of closures of 17 hospitals in 2019.
"There were tough financial headwinds for rural hospitals prior to the pandemic," explained Alan Morgan, the CEO of the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), according to the Washington Examiner. "Did the pandemic exacerbate an already difficult situation? Absolutely."
But experts say that the downward spiral of the fate of rural hospitals was already in motion prior to the pandemic. Four such medical centers close early in 2020, before the COVID-19 wave.
"This is not the result of the pandemic, although it certainly didn’t help at all and probably made things worse," said Mark Holms, director of the Cecil B. Sheps Center, according to the Examiner. "But the trend that we were on prior to the pandemic taking hold underscores the crisis facing rural hospitals worldwide."
Statistics show that from 2011 to 2020, 133 rural hospitals were forced to shut down and more than 453 of the approximate 1,800 similar centers across the U.S. are on the brink of closure.
According to the Examiner, the reasons why these suburban venues are more vulnerable is that they do not have the high volume of patients that city hospitals serve daily. Rural patients are also more apt to have Medicare or Medicaid that do not pay as well as private insurance companies, or no insurance at all.
However, after March, as the pandemic spread, more rural hospitals were forced to shutter as they also stopped performing profitable elective surgical procedures and screenings due to the COVID-19 safety protocols.
Experts say that the CARES Act which gave $100 billion to hospitals responding to the pandemic was able to keep some institutions afloat. The Chartis Center for Rural Health said as the number of COVID-19 cases soared in rural communities by late summer and fall of 2020, some hospitals were seeing up to 200,000 patients each week. The number of hospitalized patients in rural settings who were sick with the virus jumped to 30% in November.
"We never had a respite in the surge on these rural counties that allowed rural hospitals to get their feet under them," said Morgan, according to the Examiner.
Rural hospitals are not the only medical institutions affected by the COVID-19 crisis. According to industry experts, all U.S. hospitals are facing the biggest economic and medical challenges in their history. Last spring, statistics showed that the pandemic was costing them $50 billion in lost revenues each month, according to NPR.
Rick Pollack, president, and CEO of the American Hospital Association, told NPR that hospitals still have "a tremendous need."
"I think it’s fair to say that hospitals are facing perhaps the biggest challenge that they have ever faced in their history," he said.
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