Charlton Memorial Hospital in southeast Georgia, which will suspend operations Friday, is set to become the third rural hospital in the state to close...

Charlton Memorial Hospital in southeast Georgia, which will suspend operations Friday, is set to become the third rural hospital in the state to close this year.

The Hospital Authority of Charlton County cited ‘‘financial instability’’ in announcing its decision to close the nonprofit facility’s doors. A family practice clinic will continue providing services, the authority said.

The decision on the Folkston facility followed closings of Richland and Arlington hospitals earlier this year.

“The hospital has been experiencing financial problems for a number of years,’’ Charlton Memorial CEO H.D. Cannington told GHN on Monday. The facility, he added, “has a tremendous amount of indigent care.’’

Local residents recently petitioned the Charlton County Commission to assist the struggling hospital. According to a WTLV report, county officials pointed out in response that the hospital was continuing to lose money, and they cited the increase in its debt — from $1 million in 2000 to more than $5.8 million this year.

With the closing, residents may have to travel 30 miles to go to another hospital, said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health, an organization of rural hospitals in the state. “It will hurt the elderly and those in poverty who don’t have the means to travel 30 miles for health care.’’

Lewis predicted that more rural hospitals could close in Georgia. He cited continual cash shortages and claims disputes with insurers; projected lower payments to hospitals from the new state employee benefit contract; and the reduction of indigent care funding due to the Affordable Care Act.

The designers of the sweeping federal health law were counting on states expanding their Medicaid programs to offset the drop in federal ‘‘disproportionate share’’ program funds that Lewis was referring to. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that states are not obliged to expand Medicaid. Georgia, like many other states, has said it will not do so.

The economic impact of a hospital closing on a rural community can be significant. Matt Caseman of the Georgia Rural Health Association noted Monday that rural hospitals are a leading employer in a community, representing 20 percent of a local economy. “How are you going to attract future business when you don’t have a hospital?’’ Caseman said. “I don’t know what the future is — I’m very worried about it.’’

A federal report recently delivered more bad news for rural hospitals. The federal program to help rural hospitals has grown bloated and unwieldy, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The critical access hospital program was designed to financially stabilize small, rural institutions by providing them with higher Medicare reimbursement rates. Hospitals in the program are supposed to have 25 or fewer beds and be at least 35 miles away from another facility.

The report did not recommend repealing the critical access status of all of those 849 hospitals. Instead, it advised that Medicare take a second look at all of the hospitals in the program.

The report is likely to send shock waves through the rural health community, Kaiser Health News reported.

Charlton, with 22 beds, is a critical access hospital.

Earlier this year came the closings of two small southwest Georgia hospitals closed: Stewart-Webster Hospital in Richland, and Calhoun Memorial in Arlington, 50 miles south of Richland.

“It is unfortunate that the current state of health care and reimbursement structure is exactly what harms community hospitals across this state,’’ said state Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine). “Some experts believe there will be an additional 20 small community hospitals in Georgia to close in the next two years.’’

Stewart Webster Hospital

Stewart Webster Hospital closed earlier this year.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

  • GraceD

    Another reason Ga needs to expand Medicaid. That would keep these access hospitals open.
    But, guess what folks, we have a Red state! Gov. Deal & his minions of republicans refuse to expand. What do they care, they are getting their health care off of your backs.
    Vote these vultures out of office.

  • ruby slippers

    Without any notice or communication Vidant Health announced the closing of a critical access hospital they acquired in 2011. Vidant Pungo Hospital is located in a very rural area in Belhaven, North Carolina. Pungo Hospital services over 25,000 lives in 2 counties (over 1200 sq. miles). The nearest emergency hospitals will add 1-2 hours of transport time after the EMS reach you losing valuable minutes that can and will increase death rates. The initial plan is to phase out services and force patients to travel 35-60 miles for treatment while they decide what kind of replacement facility to build. As of today no land has been acquired and nothing in writing that a facility will be built. There is no reason to believe anything that Vidant’s CEO says. His reply to a gathering of over 400 residents was to compare our situation to “living in war zone under battlefield conditions.”

    There will be no blood bank. If you can make it in the battlefield, you might make it till you reach the hospital 2 hours away. The audience he was speaking to was made up of elderly medicare patients, retirees, veterans, young unemployed, (11% in this county), people who survive on as low as $600 a month and medical staff that he just put out of work.. He just pronounced a death sentence to thousands of people and he didn’t blink an eye.

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