Locals worry as rural hospital closes its ER

Flint River Hospital in Montezuma
Flint River Hospital in Montezuma

The closing of a hospital ER will force many rural Macon County residents to drive 20 to 30 miles for emergency care, officials say.

Flint River Hospital, in the south central Georgia town of Montezuma, will continue to operate. But Sunday’s closing of its emergency room follows the total shutdown of three rural hospitals in Georgia this year due to financial difficulties, including a Folkston facility late last month. (Here’s a recent GHN article on the rural closures.)

The for-profit hospital said Monday in a press release that it will convert its emergency room to a crisis unit for substance abuse and mental health problems.

Philip Eastman, the Flint River Hospital CEO, said in the press release that as the health care delivery system is becoming more specialized, “we felt the need to put the financial and clinical resources in place to support this model.’’

Flint River said it will also operate an urgent care center at the hospital to handle some patients who formerly would have gone to its emergency room.

Still, the ER closing is a setback for the area, local officials say.

Noting that urgent care centers are not ERs, Macon County EMS Director Joe Weaver told WMAZ-TV recently that they can’t handle the most severe medical situations. In those cases, he said, ambulances would have to travel longer distances, to either Americus or Perry.

“Any trauma, any heart attack, they won’t be able to do a whole lot there for you” at an urgent care center, Weaver said.

Jimmy Davis, executive director of the Macon County Development Authority and Chamber of Commerce, told GHN on Wednesday that the ER closing would hurt economic development.

“The hospital is losing money,’’ he acknowledged. “Somewhere there’s got to be an answer.’’

Both Davis and Weaver said the county would face higher ambulance costs. .

State officials said Wednesday that a hospital is not required to have an emergency room to obtain or retain its license as a hospital.

The Georgia Hospital Association, meanwhile, said it knows of no other hospital in the state that has closed an ER but kept the rest of the facility operating.

An emergency room is an expensive unit for a hospital to run, Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health, said Wednesday. Federal law requires an ER to treat all patients who show up, even if they have no health insurance and cannot pay.

In an area with a high number of uninsured, “the ER becomes the family practitioner,’’ Lewis said.

Macon County has an uninsured rate of 24 percent, higher than the state average. It also has a low number of primary care physicians for its population, according to the University of Wisconsin/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation county health rankings.

The county has high rates of premature deaths and of babies born with low birthweights, said Regina McDuffie, county manager.

The ER closure, she said, will have “a strong negative impact on what we do.’’

“Because of the hospital being private, the county doesn’t have a lot of influence on operations there,’’ she added.

In emergency cases, McDuffie said, “We are going to do everything we can to get the patients to a facility as quickly as possible.’’