Georgia legislator to reporter: let struggling, rural hospitals close

1:58 AM, Jan 22, 2014   |    comments
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Rep. Sharon Cooper, (R), Marietta, Chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee

ATLANTA -- A firestorm erupted this week at the state capitol and across Georgia over health care and rural hospitals.

A state legislator from Marietta told a reporter that some rural hospitals, which are struggling to make ends meet, should simply close.

As it is, possibly 15 hospitals across Georgia are at greatest risk of shutting down, affecting as many as 200,000 people who depend on those hospitals.

So when a key lawmaker, Rep. Sharon Cooper, (R), Marietta, said this week that some of those at-risk, rural hospitals should close, the battle was on.

Dozens of rural hospitals across Georgia are fighting to survive, and some are in better shape than others.

There are many reasons for their troubles -- economic reasons and political reasons -- which go back more than a decade.

Basically, because they are located in rural parts of the state, they have fewer patients to serve, yet they have to meet the same, rigid standards as hospitals everywhere else must meet, which means their overhead is sky-high.

Many of those hospitals would like the state to expand Medicaid, to help their bottom line.

But Governor Deal and Rep. Cooper, who is chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee, and many others in the legislature are saying that the state cannot afford to expand Medicaid.

Rep. Cooper told reporter Jonathan Shapiro of FM 90.1 WABE in Atlanta that if there are not enough patients to keep a rural hospital open, let that hospital close.

"There are some of those rural hospitals that need to close," Cooper said in the interview.

And what about the patients?

"I think it's time to look at the fact that maybe they need to go to regional hospitals," she said.

"That is an unthinkable position," said Jimmy Lewis, the CEO of Hometown Health. Lewis lobbies at the state legislature on behalf of more than 50 rural, Georgia hospitals.

"I heard the chair of the committee say that she felt like there ought to be rural hospitals that ought to close," Lewis told 11Alive News on Tuesday. "And, quite frankly, that is an unthinkable position to take from a legislator [who is] Health and Human Services Chair, because in her position it ought to be about trying to figure out how to save health care, and what I heard her say is she's willing to sacrifice health care access to people in the state of Georgia."

Lewis said expanding Medicaid by itself is not going to be enough to save Georgia's rural hospitals. But he said patients in rural Georgia who have medical emergencies should not have to travel an hour or two to get to the nearest, regional hospital as Rep. Cooper was suggesting.

"She's an urban legislator whose access is right down the block. These are rural constituents who have to drive 60 miles to get to a hospital.... We have people to die, for as much as we limit access, and we are truly limiting access. We're creating death amongst the constituents of the state of Georgia. That's just not a good thing.... We're looking at creating third-world conditions by the losses of these hospitals, and we've already lost three, and we've got ten to fifteen more that are in serious shape."

Governor Deal is talking about a one-time cash infusion to help rural hospitals survive in the short term.

11Alive News called Rep. Cooper's office at the state Capitol late Tuesday afternoon, but was not able to reach her in time for this story for her comments about it.

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