Hospital closures leave a quarter of Tennesseans without emergency room access

Counties in Crisis

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee ranks number two in the nation on rural hospital closures and Congress is paying attention.

“Nationwide, we’re experiencing a rural hospital closure crisis, but this is particularly pronounced in the state of Tennessee,” explained National Rural Health Association CEO Alan Morgan.

About a dozen rural hospitals have closed across the Volunteer State since 2010 and more are at risk.

“When you lose a rural hospital, oftentimes the community follows as a result of that,” added Morgan.

Morgan said rural hospitals are closing in Tennessee for a variety of reasons, including a high percentage of Medicaid recipients or uninsured residents who can’t afford a hospital visit.

The closures have left patients in nearly a quarter of the state’s counties without easy access to an emergency room.

“Unfortunately, right now the crisis has become so significant and so severe that it’s forcing policy makers to act, both at the federal level and at the state level,”  said Morgan.

Tennessee Congressman Mark Green is working on a fix in Congress.

“It’s something that has to be addressed, both from an economic standpoint and from a safety net standpoint,” said Congressman Green.

Green’s legislation would help more rural hospitals be classified as critical access hospitals, qualifying them for higher medicare reimbursement rates.

Right now, facilities normally need to be at least 35-miles away from another hospital to qualify but Green’s bill eliminates that requirement.

“That will save a ton of hospitals, like these rural hospitals in Tennessee,” added Green.

If a hospital still closes, the community could convert it to a free-standing 24/7 emergency room.

Currently, those facilities can only access money from Medicare or Medicaid when they are less than 35 miles from another hospital.

A second bill sponsored by Green would change that, too.

“Some crazy rule, government being too invasive years ago,” added Green.

These tweaks are gaining momentum among Democrats and Republicans in Congress and groups like the National Rural Health Association.

“I think that’s an approach we really need to look at going ahead,” said Morgan.

Despite criticism that critical access hospitals provide lower quality care and are less financially efficient, Morgan believes more of the facilities could help solve the rural hospital closure crisis.

Many rural communities across Tennessee are struggling to move forward. News 2 investigates “Counties in crisis” with special reports all day Thursday in every newscast. Click here to read more.

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