Cash-strapped rural hospitals brace for surge of COVID-19 patients

Hospitals in many rural communities across the U.S. were under financial stress before the COVID-19 outbreak, and the pandemic is creating new financial and operational challenges.

Hospitals in major U.S. cities, including New York and Seattle, have been overwhelmed by the surge in COVID-19 patients in recent weeks. The increase in patient volume is also putting significant stress on hospitals in some rural counties across the country.

According to a data analysis by CNBC, some rural counties are leading the U.S. in per capita rates of confirmed cases. Several of the hardest-hit rural counties are in Colorado, Utah and other states that are popular hiking and skiing destinations where tourists have spread COVID-19, according to the report.

Many rural hospitals are ill equipped to handle a surge of COVID-19 patients, and the financial pressures created by the pandemic could force some to close. In the past decade, 128 rural hospitals have closed and more than 400 others are vulnerable to closure. "If we're not able to address the short-term cash needs of rural hospitals, we're going to see hundreds of rural hospitals close before this crisis ends," Alan Morgan, head of the National Rural Health Association, told Kaiser Health News.

While some rural hospitals are preparing for a surge of COVID-19 patients, others are facing closure due to significant declines in patient volume in March. Though Washington is one of the states hit hardest by COVID-19, hospitals in rural areas of the state have yet to see a surge in patients. The lull in patients and lost revenue from canceling elective surgeries have put several hospitals in a fragile financial situation. At least 13 rural hospitals in Washington have less than 45 days cash on hand, and five of those hospitals face "imminent closure" without an influx of funding, according to a March 20 letter from the Washington State Hospital Association to Gov. Jay Inslee.

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