August 27, 2020 – As COVID-19 continues to spread, an increasing number of rural communities in the U.S. find themselves without their hospital or on the brink of losing already cash-strapped facilities, reports NPR.
Eighteen rural hospitals closed last year and the first three months of 2020 were “really big months,” says Mark Holmes, director of the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Many of the losses are in Southern states, including Florida and Texas. One 2019 study found that death rates in the surrounding communities increase nearly 6% after a rural hospital closes — and that’s when there’s not a pandemic.
Add to that what is known about the coronavirus: People who are obese, live with diabetes, hypertension, asthma and other underlying health issues are more susceptible to COVID-19. Rural areas tend to have higher rates of these conditions. And rural residents are more likely to be older, sicker and poorer than those in urban areas. All this leaves rural communities particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Congress approved billions in federal relief funds for health care providers. Initially, federal officials based what a hospital would get on its Medicare payments, but by late April they heeded criticism and carved out funds for rural hospitals and COVID-19 hot spots. Rural hospitals leapt at the chance to shore up already-negative budgets and prepare for the pandemic.
The funds “helped rural hospitals with the immediate storm,” says Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association. Nearly 80% of Alabama’s rural hospitals began the year with negative balance sheets and about eight days’ worth of cash on hand…