Recently, at the annual Forum sponsored by the Colorado Rural Health Center, we were fortunate to hear from Michael King, attorney and Chair of Transactional Health Care Group at the law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
King had a thought-provoking and startling assertion on rural hospitals in Colorado: Without a major health provider stepping in, these independent hospitals are in deep trouble. King emphasized that joint ventures between large hospital systems and smaller, rural facilities may be the best option for ensuring these facilities stay open long term because the cost of operating a hospital has grown so much, placing most of these smaller, critical facilities in financial jeopardy.
King cited the November 2014 announcement that St. Vincent Hospital in Leadville would close as a recent example of what is likely to happen to many more of Colorado’s rural hospitals. In February, St. Vincent announced that it has entered into a formal management agreement for Centura Health to manage the hospital’s operations. Additionally, Platte Valley Medical Center in Brighton recently signed a letter of intent to merge with SCL Health System.
This issue of rural hospitals is not limited to Colorado, of course. Recently, a mayor from Belhaven, North Carolina walked 237 miles to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of rural hospital closures in his community. In fact, as we learned at the Forum, more rural critical access hospitals have closed across the country in the last ten years than in the previous forty.
How can Colorado best serve its rural communities while hospital costs keep rising?
Each community needs to approach the possibility of creating a partnership with a larger hospital network on its own terms. For some communities, a partnership could mean continuing to have access to critical services, such as labor and delivery, cardiac care and a surgical center. And in other communities, a large hospital group could mean more modern facilities and equipment, and increased investment in technology.
Despite these obvious benefits, many are concerned about what joint ventures mean for the community. It can mean the loss of local health care providers, a change in accepted health insurance plans, and even a hit to the local economy, as hospital investment and returns are concentrated at the corporate headquarters.
Some communities have set up special tax districts in an effort to fund their local health center more fully, and others are relying on the dwindling payments from Medicare and Medicaid.
There is no one right solution. Each community is working out the best strategy for its health needs. But one thing is universal: Every Coloradan deserves a place to get affordable, quality health care, and in too many towns across our state that assurance is becoming less promising with each passing year. We need to work on common-sense, feasible solutions that help support our health care providers in rural areas.
We want to hear from you: What is your rural community doing to help fund and support its local hospital, health care providers and clinics?