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Monday, February 11, 2013 - 10:08am

Charity Care Strains Rural Hospitals

Rural health advocates say a small hospital that closed in southwest Georgia Feb. 1 may not be the only one to shut its doors in the coming months.

These hospitals are facing a familiar economic storm: more patients are unemployed and have no health coverage. Many of those who have insurance can’t afford the higher co-pays and deductibles. Meanwhile, government programs like Medicaid that used to help are shrinking. It all means the amount the hospitals spend on “uncompensated care” is climbing.

Officials at Calhoun Memorial Hospital in Arlington cited that ballooning cost of care for patients who couldn’t pay when they closed their doors.

“It’s the first of what can, and probably will, be several to come. We’ve got several other hospitals that, even as we speak, are in crisis situations trying to stabilize financing just to stay open within the next couple of weeks,” said Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health, an association of 56 rural hospitals in Georgia.

Matt Caseman with the Georgia Rural Health Association said many other rural hospitals face the same problem with charity care.

“Georgia has one of the highest rates of uninsured and underinsured in the country and a lot of those residents reside in rural areas. Treating the uninsured is very costly,” Caseman said.

Lewis said many small hospitals will be helped by lawmakers’ decision to give a state board the authority to extend a hospital bed tax for Medicaid. But he said the length of the economic downturn has left many of them with no financial margin.

Sixty-four hospitals in Georgia operated at a loss in 2011, according to that year’s hospital financial survey administered by the state Department of Community Health.

Georgia hospitals spent $1.5 billion on uncompensated care in 2010, according to the most recent data from the Georgia Hospital Association. That was up 12 percent in three years.