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Two more hospitals set to close
Physicians Regional Medical Center.jpg

Tennessee hospitals continue to experience failing health as it has been announced two more will close before the end of the year.

Physicians Regional Medical Center in North Knoxville and Lakeway Regional Hospital in Morristown are the facilities scheduled to close. According to their owner, Tennova Healthcare, all services at the two hospitals will be permanently terminated as of 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 28.

It will bring the total number of Tennessee hospital closures to 11 since January of 2010, according to the Shep Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina.

During that eight-year span, 89 hospitals in America have closed, the Shep Center says, with Texas having the most at 15. Tennessee is second.

It’s a trend that’s only going to continue, says Saint Thomas River Park Hospital CEO Dale Humphrey.

“Unfortunately, there will be more closing down the road unless there’s more done on the reimbursement side,” said Humphrey. “There’s no way you can provide care if you’re not reimbursed.”

Humphrey compared the situation to a supermarket giving away groceries. It’s an arrangement that won’t last long.

When it comes to hospitals, they are required to provide medical care, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay and regardless of their insurance coverage. Humphrey said insurance companies make it a constant emphasis to keep their costs at a minimum.

“The minute you’re admitted to a hospital, your insurance company is trying to get you out,” said Humphrey. “Fewer people have insurance and those who do have their deductibles so high, some up there at $6,000, it really breaks all the families who are living paycheck to paycheck.”

Of the hospitals that have closed in the U.S. since 2010, a full 36 percent are from just three states – Texas, Tennessee and Georgia. All three of those states have rejected efforts to expand Medicaid.

Going further down the list, Alabama, Missouri and North Carolina have all had five hospitals to close since 2010. None of those states have expanded Medicaid either.

Those six states make up 52.7 percent of all U.S. hospital closures since 2010.

Humphrey said he sees no reason for local residents to fear Saint Thomas River Park may close, thanks largely to its ability to provide a wide range of services and its connection to the Saint Thomas Health network.

Humphrey says the Tennessee Hospital Association has long supported the expansion of Medicaid in Tennessee, which the General Assembly has failed to do, despite the urging of Gov. Bill Haslam.

 “If people had some type of insurance, even though it may not completely cover all costs, at least it’s something,” said Humphrey. “For the people who have health insurance, we pay more because of the people who don’t.”

Those comments were echoed by the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonpartisan health advocacy organization.

“The news that two more hospitals will close should be a wake-up call for our state leaders,” said Michele Johnson, executive director of Tennessee Justice Center. “This is an urgent reminder that our legislature’s refusal to accept federal funding for Medicaid expansion endangers a healthcare system on which all Tennesseans must rely.”

The Government Accountability Office recently reported to Congress that hospitals in the 34 states that have accepted federal funds to expand Medicaid are six times less likely to close than in Tennessee and other states that refuse the federal funding.

In 2015, the Tennessee legislature rejected Gov. Haslam’s plan, called Insure Tennessee, to use $1.4 billion a year in federal Medicaid funds to cover uninsured Tennesseans and support the state’s healthcare system. Lawmakers have never provided a clear explanation of why they rejected Insure Tennessee, especially with no alternate plan in place.

“The experience of other states tells us that, if our legislature had not blocked Gov. Haslam four years ago, some of the hospitals we have lost would still be open, and their communities would not be struggling with the aftermath of their closing,” said Johnson. “There is nothing sadder or more disturbing than to see plywood sealing doors that once welcomed mothers giving birth and patients seeking lifesaving care. When you watch litter blowing through what used to be the ambulance loading area, it hits you there are lives being lost that could have been saved.”