Life Support | Part 1: The Rural Health Care Crisis in Missouri

3 weeks 2 days 19 hours ago Sunday, November 17 2019 Nov 17, 2019 Sunday, November 17, 2019 5:31:00 PM CST November 17, 2019 in News
By: Zita Zengerling, KOMU 8 Producer
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SWEET SPRINGS - In some parts of Missouri, rural health care is on life support. 

A bright green handwritten poster on the door of the former I-70 Community Hospital in Sweet Springs reads: “Due to voluntary TEMPORARY license suspension, no patient care service will be provided at this time.” 

The facility, which once had 15 beds, is closed. After suspending its license in February 2019. Afterwards, the owning management firm EmpowerHMS, filed bankruptcy for the hospital. 

Its head, Florida businessman Jorge A. Perez, was once celebrated for his business model of giving struggling rural hospitals new hope. 

However, according to Kaiser Health News, he later was accused of using a lab billing scheme by making money from higher than usual billings for laboratory tests, which is legal to keep some rural health providers with a small number of tests afloat.

According to KBIA, Perez showed up at a farewell potluck party of employees of Fulton Medical Center in Callaway County after the hospital was set to close in 2017. He told staff he had just bought the hospital. But the sale never went through. 

Fulton Medical Center is in deep debt, but remains open.

More rural hospitals closed

According to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, 88 hospitals considered to be rural have closed nationwide in the last five years. Six of them were located in Missouri:

  • I-70 Community Hospital in Sweet Springs,
  • Southeast Health Center of Ripley County in Doniphan, 
  • Twin Rivers Regional Medical Center in Kennett,
  • Southeasthealth Center of Reynolds County in Ellington,
  • Parkland Health Center- Weber Rd in Farmington,
  • Sac-Osage Hospital in Osceola.

The Missouri Hospital Association even lists a 7th closed rural acute care hospital: Black River Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, which has merged with Saint Francis Healthcare System in August 2019. 

(Map shows all closed Hospitals designated by the Missouri Hospital Association and all licensed Hospital listed by the Department of Health and Senior Services including rehabilitation and mental health facilities as well as pediatric hospitals.)

A closure of local hospitals can extend transportation times in an emergency.

In Sweet Springs, the time an ambulance takes from picking up a patient to being back in service has doubled. It’s changed from an hour or less to nearly two hours since the hospital closed.

Health professionals are missing in almost all the state

The issue of rural health care goes beyond emergency care. In September, the President and CEO of Missouri Hospital Association stated that nationwide, between 2012 and 2017, 388 rural health clinics have closed, some of them in Missouri. 

Additionally, all Missouri counties except Platte County are considered by the Health Resources and Services Administration to experience some shortage of health professionals. When looking at counties as a whole, ninety-seven of Missouri’s 114 counties and the City of St. Louis are considered to be “health professional shortage areas." 

(In Missouri in 2014; according to HRSA Area Health Resources Files, 2014 and 2015.)

(Editor’s note: In the coming week, KOMU 8 News will air a series of reports Monday through Thursday at 10 p.m. “Life Support: The Rural Health Care Crisis”, only on KOMU 8 News.)

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