On July 1, Pungo Hospital in Belhaven, North Carolina, closed, leaving the town's more than 1,500 residents a 30-minute drive away from a proper emergency room.Eric Byler/StoryofAmerica.org
This can be problematic. “If someone is having a stroke, it's probably not good to have another half-hour drive before you can get treatment,” O’Neal said.
But it turns out that Belhaven’s experience is far from unique.
Across the country, many rural hospitals are closing down, according to the National Rural Health Association. In 2013 alone, 14 rural hospitals shut down nationwide, leaving whole communities without quick access to emergency care.
That’s not just a healthcare problem; it is an economic issue too. In addition to healthcare services, research shows rural hospitals contribute significantly to local economies. They bring outside dollars into rural communities and stimulate local purchasing power while they help attract industry and, in some locales, a steady flow of retirees.
The 50-bed Pungo Hospital was the largest employer in the predominantly African-American community of Belhaven. It represented roughly 10 percent of the funds the town received each year by providing utilities such as electricity to its residents and businesses, said Town Manager Guinn Leverett. Belhaven is now considering raising property taxes by 10 percent to make up the loss of that revenue.
While there seems to be consensus that the increasing rate of hospital closures in rural America is alarming, there isn’t much agreement on the causes. Some health experts say it’s the fallout of health care’s transition from a cost-based model to pay-for-performance, which aims to improve the quality and outcomes while lowering costs. But many others put the blame on shifting demographics, sharp cuts to federal reimbursements, dwindling numbers of insured patients and congressional gridlock in Washington, D.C.
The closure of Pungo Hospital is in part due to North Carolina’s refusal to expand Medicaid, Vidant Health said in a statement. Other considerations, including the failing state of the 60-year-old facility also contributed to the decision to close it. The hospital ran close to a $1.8 million deficit last year—although it’s unclear what caused the shortfall. Repeated attempts to contact Vidant about the deficit went unanswered.