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Healthcare: Hospital closures need legislators’ attention

Last week, Bluefield Regional Medical Center became a shell of its former self as officials announced it would close down all inpatient and ancillary services by July 30. It will, for now, continue to offer an emergency department, a lab and x-rays.

That is quite a blow to the area, though Princeton Community Hospital (20 minutes away and having purchased the Bluefield facility last year) is still in operation.

According to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, the move will affect 340 employees. But, as Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., noted, the loss is part of something much bigger. Bluefield Regional is the fourth Mountain State hospital to essentially shut its doors in the past 18 months.

What is happening? Our state has a median age of nearly 43 and getting older, and a population so riddled with health issues our governor repeatedly reminded us we were among the most vulnerable people in the country when it came to underlying conditions that might make COVID-19 deadly. One would think the hospital business would be booming.

But we are also poor and rural. Nothing that promised to be the next big economic savior in our state has panned out for generations, now. The struggle has pushed nearly 18 percent of our population below the poverty line.

According to Becker’s Hospital Review, there are three factors that play into the trend toward hospital closures (64 rural facilities closed nationwide between 2013 and 2017). First, the money. Fewer commercial payers and a higher number of patients with state-funded insurance mean lower reimbursement rates. Second, age and chronic health woes can actually put a greater strain on rural hospitals, where it is not always easy to provide the services and specializations needed. Third, it is a challenge to attract and retain healthcare providers.

Attracting and retaining has been a theme during the last several legislative sessions. Perhaps it is time to turn that thinking toward our hospitals. Certainly the solution to our loss of exactly these rural hospitals is complex, but lawmakers would do well to get out ahead of the game this year and examine whether they can do anything that might become part of that solution.

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