King Cooper is Killing Rural Health Care

RALEIGH – When the Pandemic Panic hit in earnest here in North Carolina, instigated by select modes of fear mongering, hospitals were at the center of the storm.

‘Flattening the curve’ was aimed at preventing hospitals from being overwhelmed, and so in addition to Stay-at-Home orders and social distancing, Governor King Roy Cooper decreed that hospitals cancel most “non-essential” or elective procedures. They didn’t want to waste precious Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on elective surgeries because they were scared of running out during the massive waves of COVID-19 cases. Plus, they’d need all the square footage they could get to handle all the pandemic patients.

To say the panicked predictions missed the mark would be an understatement, and the unintended consequences of such a massive policy failure are still reverberating across the Old North State. Particularly in health care, and especially in rural hospitals.

The waves of coronavirus patients never arrived; instead of overcrowding, hospitals became so empty and devoid of revenue that many were forced to furlough hospital staff; and, many rural hospitals in North Carolina were already sitting on over a year’s worth of PPE supply.

It’s a disaster, and King Cooper may double-down on it.

From Carolina Journal:

“Cooper has signaled he will refreeze elective surgeries if hospitals become overwhelmed. If that happens, the damage to rural public health may be irreversible.  

Rural hospitals were fragile, even before the pandemic. The longer Cooper shutters the economy, the slimmer their chances of financial recovery. Some rural hospitals won’t exist after the pandemic subsides. […]

For Martin General Hospital in Williamston, the past few months have been devastating. In April, revenue plunged roughly 40%. They dropped 30% in May. Elective surgeries are the “bread-and-butter” of rural hospitals. Without them, hospitals founder, says John Jacobson, interim chief executive officer.

“That’s the lifeblood of a small, rural hospital,” Jacobson told Carolina Journal. “We run pretty thin margins out here in the rural community. It’s not a high-profit business. Being able to break even is our goal.”

Even as the state prepares for the next coronavirus surge, rural hospitals are cutting services or reducing staff. Patients in the most underserved areas will suffer. 

Cooper’s shutdowns already shuttered services and clinics across Robeson County, where Southeastern Health serves one of the largest and poorest counties in North Carolina. Three in 10 residents live in poverty and rely on Medicaid for coverage. The county covers more than 900 square miles. 

The hospital lost $17 million. It closed a handful of offices and a clinic on the outskirts of its service area. It had already slashed salaries, projects, benefits, and expenses. It closed 236 job positions, Anderson told CJ.

“In the beginning of COVID, it was as if we had a hurricane every month,” Anderson said. “If we went back to Phase One again, that’s another huge financial hit. I hate to use the word ‘catastrophic.’ … But you can’t weather that many storms in one year and be financially OK.” […]”

The N.C. General Assembly did pass legislation offering over $30 million in hardship payments to more than a dozen hospitals, but it wasn’t enough to make them whole. Not to mention all the additional damage that will be done if King Cooper is foolish enough to ban elective surgeries again.

Read more about rural hospitals struggling under the burden of Cooper’s commands here.

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