Hospital Closures Cripple Small Towns
I was born and raised in Fort Sumner, a small village in Eastern New Mexico. More specifically, I was born at De Baca General Hospital — a 21-bed facility on North Tenth Street in that sleepy town. In fact, I was delivered by the same doctor who delivered my father.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that building this week. Well, to be perfectly honest, it’s not entirely fair to think of it as a “building.” It was an institution; and, in so many ways, it was helping to keep that little village alive.
I only recall being treated at that hospital twice during its heyday — first to be treated for a late-night ear infection when I was about five, then for an x-ray nearly six years later, when a porch swing fell on my leg, not quite breaking it.
De Baca General Hospital shuttered in 2001, setting into motion a chain of events that are part of the reason I have to stay in a motel when I return to my hometown. Upon the closure of that hospital, my grandparents sold the home they had lived in for nearly 50 years and moved to Portales. They were aging, both had dealt with heart issues, and they simply needed to live near a hospital.
Around the same time, my father retired as a teacher and moved to Texas in hopes of teaching a few more years. With that, I no longer had family in my hometown. That was difficult to come to terms with. In fact, I still struggle that my most significant and meaningful ties to that community are in the cemetery, up on the hill.
The building that was once De Baca General Hospital has been remodeled, and is now De Baca Family Practice Clinic. The clinic is, in part, federally funded, and receives funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as a grantee under the Health Center Program. It keeps fairly regular business hours, and is closed Sundays.
Nevertheless, Ft. Sumner is doing a lot better than a lot of struggling rural areas — even without a regular hospital. And that’s why I’ve been thinking about it lately.
Over the weekend, I read an article by Eli Saslow in the Washington Post. Reporting from Fairfax, Oklahoma, Saslow chronicled a small community whose only hospital is literally on the very brink of failure. At the time of Saslow’s reporting, the hospital had about $12,000 in the bank, more than $1 million in outstanding debt, a rapidly-diminishing medical supply closet, and a staff of about 30 employees that had not received a paycheck in 11 weeks and “had been fending off closure hour by hour for the past several months.”
Meanwhile, the residents of Oklahoma’s vast Osage County — where Fairfax Community Hospital was the only medical center within 30 miles — kept showing up in the emergency room to be treated.
It’s an incredibly compelling 20-minute read — but, unfortunately, the story itself is not particularly unique. In the past decade, more than 100 rural American hospitals have gone broke and shuttered. Meanwhile, ER visits to rural hospitals have increased by more than 60 percent. For a variety of reasons, including cuts to Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates, 46 percent of rural hospitals lost money in 2018, according to Saslow’s exceptional reporting.
I suppose the reason that this story resonated with me is because I grew up in one of those small communities; one of those small, rural hospitals played a vital role in saving the lives of both of my grandparents, until they could be transported to a more comprehensive medical facility. It gave me another decade with each of my grandparents, and was the very reason they were both at my high school graduation.
But the story of Fairfax Community Hospital really hit home. It brought tears to my eyes. And I’ve been wondering all week if something can be done to avoid this public health crisis.
— Originally Published in the Las Cruces Sun-News, 05/16/19