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First Rural Hospital Closing Of Decade Leaves Patients In The Dark

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia
A sign announces the sudden closure of Pinnacle Regional Hospital in Boonville.

On a cold and windy January morning in Boonville, Thomas Talent had driven close to an hour to Pinnacle Regional Hospital for an appointment. The only problem – the hospital closed suddenly the day before.

Talent didn’t find out until he saw a sign on the door saying, “This hospital and all of its services, including the emergency room, will close on Wednesday, if you are having a medical emergency, call 9-1-1.”

"It’s a long drive for us and nobody let us know anything," Talent said. "I got ‘em on the phone and they said that they’ve closed down, didn’t say why."

Credit Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA
Thomas Talent drove almost an hour from Sedalia for an appointment, only to find the hospital closed.

In a news release, the Kansas City-area Pinnacle Healthcare System said the costs of bringing the 46-bed hospital into compliance with state regulations were too high. The company declined to talk more about it.

Talent said a hospital representative told him they’d send through his prescriptions, but he can’t afford to wait long. "I’m a severe diabetic, I’m out of my diabetic medicine; I have sciatica on both sides, I’m in a lot of pain," Talent explained.

Other patients, like 84-year-old Jim Farris showed up to pick up medical records at the hospital’s emergency room. "I don’t know what I’m going to do for a doctor after, it’s all up in the air," Farris said. "This might be a good idea to get this pinnacle off the city limits of Boonville."

Pinnacle Healthcare took over the hospital in late 2018. Early this year, Pinnacle announced the hospital would no longer offer lab testing or new direct admissions due to regulatory issues. 

Jesse Trigg worked as a radiology tech at the hospital for the last six months. He says there were rumors in the days before the closure. "Management was saying, 'no, no, we’ve got the things in line that we need to get taken care of, and we’re going to push forward with getting repairs,'" Trigg recalled. "Then the next morning got up and “hey, you’re closed.”

All hospitals' financial problems are fairly unique, according to Dave Dillon, with the Missouri Hospital Association. "There’s an old saying in the hospital business that if you’ve seen one hospital you’ve seen one hospital," Dillon said. 

But across the board rural hospitals are struggling for many of the same reasons as their communities – an aging population, higher rates of poverty, and geographic isolation. That often leaves these hospitals operating with tight profit margins, or at a loss. Nationwide, 197 rural hospitals have closed since 2005.

"What we have found is just less than 50 percent of rural hospitals are operating in the red," Dillon explained. "And in the long run that’s truly not sustainable."

Credit Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA
Formerly Cooper County Memorial Hospital, Overland Park-based Pinnacle Health acquired the 46-bed facility in 2018.

In Missouri, six rural hospitals closed in the last five years. It’s part of a group of states that have seen higher rates of closures — states that haven’t expanded Medicaid. The hospital association is supporting an initiative to get expansion on the ballot in November.

Researchers have found that Medicaid expansion is linked to better financial health for rural hospitals. More people qualifying for Medicaid means hospitals get more reimbursements for care they provide.

George Pink is a University of North Carolina professor who studies rural hospital finance and says rural hospitals have a higher proportion of revenue coming from Medicare, Medicaid and the uninsured. Pink says closures affect towns in a number of ways, from contributing to unemployment, to scaring off new businesses. 

He cautions that while Medicaid pays more than uninsured patients, who often can’t pay at all, it’s often still less than the services cost. When you add in the costs of maintenance, Pink says it’s not uncommon for hospitals to fold. "It costs a lot of money to maintain a technologically up to date and a physically safe environment for hospital," Pink explained. "If you haven't got the money to do that, then it’s not surprising that a hospital might have to close for those reasons."

Boonville residents now face drives of half an hour or more to get care, and local officials have raised concerns over ambulance response times. The community faces the same dilemma as many other rural towns across the country: how to live without a hospital.

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia was a health reporter at KBIA and is documentary filmmaker who focuses on access to care in rural and immigrant communities. A native Spanish speaker and lifelong Missouri resident, Sebastián is interested in the often overlooked and under-covered world of immigrant life in the rural midwest. He has a bachelor's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in documentary journalism at the same institution. Aside from public health, his other interests include conservation, climate change and ecology.
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