'This is going to be the death blow': Coronavirus threatens to shut hundreds of rural hospitals

The coronavirus pandemic may close hundreds of rural hospitals across the U.S., the National Rural Health Association and hospital CEOs are warning, according to Kaiser Health News.

The financial crisis comes as hospitals across the U.S. are canceling elective procedures to free up bed space and resources for COVID-19 patients. Many hospitals rely on these nonurgent procedures to boost their profit margins, according to the report. 

In addition to canceling nonurgent procedures, hospitals are also being forced to pay higher prices for personal protective gear that is in short supply. 

"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, which represents 21,000 healthcare providers and hospitals, told Kaiser Health News.  "This is not hyperbole."

Even before COVID-19, rural hospitals struggled to stay afloat due to rising financial pressures, including lower Medicare reimbursements and a shrinking patient population, according to the report. As a result, over the last decade more than 120 rural hospitals have closed.

Rural hospitals have largely survived due to elective surgeries, physical therapy and lab tests to boost their thin margins. Yet more than half of rural hospitals operate at a deficit, according to the report, which cited Chicago-based Chartis Center for Rural Health.

"This virus, and what it is causing for these hospitals, is the perfect storm that will close these hospitals at a time this country critically needs them," Robin Rau, CEO of Miller County Hospital in Colquitt, Ga., told Kaiser Health News. "This is going to be the death blow to them."

Ms. Rau recently eliminated nonurgent medical services at Miller County Hospital. She estimates this will cut the hospital's revenue in half. Other CEOs warned they are expecting a similar financial hit from eliminating nonurgent procedures. The CEOs are warning that this means they could miss payroll. 

In response to the worsening financial crisis for hospitals, the American Hospital Association requested $100 billion in federal aid for all hospitals to offset coronavirus costs. In its request to Congress, the association said rural hospitals would be unable to weather a prolonged period of this financial burden. 


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