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A lifeline for struggling hospitals?

A lifeline for struggling hospitals?
Dr. Daniel Edney

As the state’s health care crisis persists, four more Mississippi hospitals have applied to become rural emergency hospitals, a federal designation meant to increase their financial viability.

The “rural emergency hospital” designation – a move State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney likened to a hospital closure – was rolled out at the beginning of this year. To qualify, hospitals have to end inpatient services and transfer emergency room patients to larger hospitals within 24 hours. In exchange, they get monthly stipends from the federal government and higher insurance reimbursement rates.

If approved, the hospitals – Quitman Community Hospital in Marks, Panola Medical Center in Batesville, Jefferson County Hospital in Fayette and Magee General Hospital – would be some of the first rural emergency hospitals in the country. Just a handful have been approved so far, including Alliance Healthcare System in Holly Springs, according to a database last updated on August 15.

For rural hospitals with an already-small daily census, it can be a lifeline — instead of losing money on what few patients they have, the adjusted reimbursements help them break even or even profit. However, for the communities with only one hospital, it means the end of inpatient health care and a hospital with little more than an emergency room.

"It’s mainly critical access hospitals that are shifting, and when that happens, you’ve lost the hospital,” says Dr. Edney. “It’s a critical access hospital without the hospital.”

Critical access hospitals — another designation designed to improve hospital finances — are reimbursed by Medicare at a 101% rate, theoretically allowing a 1% profit. However, they must have 25 or fewer inpatient beds, be located 35 miles from another hospital, operate emergency services and transfer or discharge their patients within 96 hours.

While some see the new designation as a last resort for struggling hospitals at the brink of closure, Quentin Whitwell, who co-owns the Quitman and Panola hospitals, views it as a way to streamline services and create a financially successful hospital that serves the specific needs of the community. “It’s a game changer for a lot of hospitals,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create a model that makes these hospitals vibrant again.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Excerpted from a Mississippi Today story.



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