ATLANTA — Lower Oconee Community Hospital in southeast Georgia has closed due to financial problems, becoming the state’s fourth rural hospital to do so in the past two years.
The 25-bed “critical access” hospital in Glenwood, in Wheeler County, is looking to restructure, its CEO said in a statement.
Some of the hospital’s 100 employees have been laid off, CEO Karen O’Neal said, as reported by WMAZ. “This restructuring is being done to provide sustainable medical services in the Glenwood area.”
She told the television station Wednesday that the hospital’s owners are contemplating “some kind of urgent care center.’’
The closing of Lower Oconee reflects the financial struggles facing rural hospitals across Georgia.
Jimmy Lewis of HomeTown Health, an organization of rural hospitals in Georgia, told GHN that Lower Oconee suffered from high rates of unemployed and uninsured patients, coupled with heavy demand on staff time to handle claims processing from multiple insurance programs.
“It was a very, very bad cash-flow situation,’’ Lewis said.
The Wheeler County area had a 23 percent uninsured rate, and 10 percent of citizens are unemployed, according to the County Health Rankings from the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Forty-one percent of the county’s children live in poverty.
“We just did not have sufficient volume to support the expenses,” O’Neal told WMAZ. “It’s a terrible situation, and it’s tragic, the loss of jobs and the economic impact.”
In case of an emergency, residents will have to travel roughly 30 miles — to Vidalia, Dublin or Eastman — to get care, Lewis said.
Since 2000, eight rural hospitals have closed in Georgia.
“If we don’t come up with an emergency remedy for rural hospitals, we could see the closure of a significant additional number,” Lewis said.
It’s a crisis for rural health care, Lewis said, and ‘‘if left unattended, will create a Third World nation’’ system of medical care in these areas of Georgia.
Possible help for the rural hospitals may come from legislative proposals to relax the state’s certificate-of-need rules on establishing rural medical facilities. The less restrictive rules would allow the creation of a standalone emergency department if a rural hospital closes.
Lewis also cited proposals for financial help for rural hospitals.
South Carolina, for instance, raised the Medicaid reimbursements that it pays struggling rural hospitals. Gov. Nikki Haley’s administration called it a way to improve the health of the Palmetto State’s most vulnerable residents, according to the Associated Press.
Georgia’s spending per capita on Medicaid is among the lowest of the 50 states, Lewis noted.
Another possibility is Medicaid expansion, which would help rural hospitals by turning many of their uninsured patients into paying patients. The federal Affordable Care Act calls for expansion, providing subsidies for it, but the decision is up to the individual states.
Gov. Nathan Deal and Republican lawmakers have rejected expansion in Georgia, citing the cost to the state. And this week, GOP leaders went further, introducing a bill that would require legislative approval of any Medicaid expansion in the state.
“I think it’s an effort to add another barrier to expansion,’’ said Tim Sweeney, health policy director for the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Roughly half of the states have chosen to expand Medicaid.