The announcement Monday of the closure of Crittenden Regional Hospital in West Memphis is a microcosm of an overall issue, the president of the state’s hospital trade group said on Tuesday.
“It is a reflection of how difficult it is for rural hospitals,” Bo Ryall, CEO of the Arkansas Hospital Association said of the closing. “The margins are thin enough.”
Hospital officials late Monday announced the closing, citing a struggling economy, loss of doctors and declines in both patient volume and reimbursement rates in the last 10 years as reasons for the closure.
The hospital stopped accepting patients Monday, with the hospital’s clinics in Crittenden and Poinsett counties closing Sept. 5. The hospital will shut its doors two days later. The hospital also had a fire earlier this year that caused the hospital to close temporarily, officials said.
Crittenden County voters in June also approved a one-cent sales tax to help fund operations of the hospital. However, there is some question as to whether or not the county will have to have another election to repeal the tax, County Judge Woody Wheeless said Tuesday.
Ryall said the sales tax, like others around the state that fund hospitals, helps to fund operations as well as cover costs like jobs.
A hospital – or lack of one – can have an impact on business recruitment and people moving to an area, Ryall said.
“When someone moves to a community, they look at the schools, housing and healthcare, doctors,” Ryall said. “It is also a safety net in the time of a disaster. When there is a tornado, it is the first place people will go for water and shelter.”
Ryall said the closing will provide a challenge to Crittenden County residents, who now will have to drive 30 miles north to Osceola or cross the bridge to Memphis, for medical care.
Hospitals are also dealing with reductions in government payments from Medicare and Medicaid, leading to smaller margins, Ryall said.
The passage of the Private Option in 2013 by the state legislature has helped stem some of the cost issues and provided health care for the uninsured, Ryall said. However, he noted that it may not be enough to cover the increased costs of healthcare in the future.
Wheeless said the announcement Monday was difficult.
“We are still trying to digest what happened,” Wheeless said. “Everyone was caught off guard and it was a surprise to everybody.”
The hospital and its clinics employ around 400 people and have a $24 million per year payroll. That payroll is often spent in businesses ranging from restaurants and grocery stores, Wheeless said.
He added that the issue is even more complicated due to the fact that the county owns the hospital property. The hospital system is expected to seek bankruptcy protection in the next several weeks, with any assets including buildings, going to pay off the hospital’s debts, Wheeless said.
“It will be impossible to find someone to team up (to open a hospital). The debt, with bankruptcy, it is expected to go away,” Wheeless said. “But if the buildings are sold, the county may not own anything.”
Mike Dempster, an official with the Marion Chamber of Commerce, said the loss of the hospital is difficult to swallow.
“It is a sad, sad day. We were surprised to get the announcement,” Dempster said.
The hospital has been a vital part of the county for nearly 60 years, Dempster said. The lack of a hospital in a county with over 50,000 people also creates an issue.
“There is a fine line between distance and travel. We are within miles of one of the largest medical centers in the United States (Memphis). But something’s don’t wait,” he said.
Brad Parsons, CEO and administrator for NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, said Monday night his hospital is prepared to handle the increased number of patients.
“First, let us begin by saying we are sorry to hear of the closing of Crittenden Regional Hospital. With the opening of our new hospital earlier this year and the expansion of our emergency department, we are well-positioned to take on additional patients as they seek medical care,” Parsons said in a statement.
“NEA Baptist continues to expand our services for patients needing cancer care and heart care. We truly are committed to making Jonesboro a regional destination for healthcare. Because of this commitment, we stand ready to help the residents impacted by the closing,” he added.
Mississippi County Hospital Systems CEO Ralph Beaty said Monday that officials in Blytheville and Osceola were still trying to wrap their proverbial heads around the announcement of the closure.
However, Beaty said he believes the closing could have a positive impact for the Mississippi County Hospital Systems.
Typically, people from either the southern half of Mississippi County or the northern half of Crittenden County have chosen between going to South Mississippi County Regional Hospital in Osceola or Crittenden Regional Hospital, Beaty said.
The Mississippi County hospitals also temporarily benefitted from a fire that damaged the West Memphis hospital earlier this year, Beaty said.
Two doctors – a surgeon and an obstetrician-gynecologist who were displaced due to the fire – worked at the Mississippi County hospitals while work was being done to repair the West Memphis hospital.
Mississippi County voters will head to the polls Oct. 14 to decide the fate of a half-cent sales tax proposal that would repair aging buildings and attract new doctors.
Overall, Beaty said the Mississippi County hospitals will be ready to serve patients who have been served by the West Memphis hospital.
“We will keep our eyes and ears open, and act accordingly. Personally, I am sad. That hospital has served a significant population in our area for some time,” Beaty said.