Restart of rural South Georgia hospital fizzles

A rural hospital that reopened recently after a February closure has once again closed its doors.

Lower Oconee Community Hospital, in the Wheeler County town of Glenwood, suspended operations again late last month. Phone calls to the hospital Monday were not answered.

Wheeler County
Wheeler County

A sign posted on the hospital door said Lower Oconee “will reopen in the very near future under reorganization,” WMAZ reported.

Several employees and doctors had told WMAZ that they had not been paid in a month.

Andy Cone, operations manager for the EMS company serving Wheeler County, told GHN on Monday that with Lower Oconee closed again, emergency patients were being transported to hospitals in Vidalia, which is 24 miles away, and Dublin, 33 miles away.

Lower Oconee’s closure in February made it the fourth rural hospital in the state to close in two years. But the South Georgia hospital reopened under new ownership the next month.

The Georgia Department of Community Health recently restored Lower Oconee’s Medicaid provider number, allowing the facility to resume billing the government insurance program. Many small rural hospitals depend on revenue from Medicaid patients.

Clyde Reese, the DCH commissioner, told GHN in May, “We’re going to give them a chance to operate.’’

At that time, Lower Oconee, a 25-bed “critical access” hospital, still owed the Medicaid program $1.3 million, but Reese said the hospital had agreed to a 12-month repayment plan.

The hospital has informed Community Health of the closure, and its permit has been placed on temporary inactive status. Its Medicaid provider number has again been suspended, an agency spokeswoman said Monday.

Norman King, the new owner who revived Lower Oconee in March, said in a June 25 letter to Community Health that the hospital closed because of financial reasons stemming from its situation prior to the acquisition.

“I have every intention of reopening the hospital within the next two weeks,’’ said the King letter. “It may be a facility that will only have the ED and outpatient ancillary services, but nevertheless we will reopen.”

As rural health care has emerged as a major political issue, Gov. Nathan Deal has pushed new licensure rules for rural hospitals that have recently closed or are in financial distress.

Through a state rule change, these hospitals now will have the ability to convert to freestanding emergency departments, which could also offer surgery and obstetric services.

Deal and the Republican political leadership have rejecting expanding the Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act, which is an option that about half the states have pursued.

Many health care leaders, though, say that expansion would bring many more paying patients into rural hospitals in the state, helping them financially.