Real access to healthcare is an achievable goal, but when politicians weathering the legislative session in Atlanta play politics with people’s health, communities are left scrambling to do their best in a broken system. The state needs to do more to make it possible for small, rural hospitals to stay open, and for people living in the state’s rural and small town communities to access the healthcare they need.
Lee and Dougherty Counties in southwest Georgia are in the middle of this healthcare crisis. Dougherty County (home to Albany) has a community hospital: Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. Lee County, just to the north of Dougherty, has no hospital. A private hospital company wants to set up shop in Lee County, leading the two municipalities to butt heads over whether or not the new hospital is needed.
Many local leaders in Lee County, on the one side, are arguing that there needs to be more choice for local residents. Elected officials in Dougherty County are concerned that another hospital opening up in the neighboring county will put theirs out of business.
The healthcare landscape in the area doesn’t look good. According to the Census Bureau, 22 percent of working-age adults are uninsured in Dougherty County, while 15 of working-age adults are uninsured in Lee County.
This means a higher portion of Lee County residents have some kind of insurance plan that can help pay for hospital stays. But community hospitals like Pheobe Putney in Dougherty County count on privately insured patients’ higher reimbursement rates to make up for the high portion of uninsured patients they care for. Without Medicaid expansion, hospitals, non-profit community hospitals, especially, are having to shoulder a higher portion of the costs of serving uninsured patients, as the federal government reduces Disproportionate Share Hospital payments.
Folks in Dougherty County are right to be concerned that a new hospital opening up just around the corner would make it even more financially unsustainable for Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital to stay open.
Meanwhile, Lee County residents truly don’t have many options, as is true for many rural and small town communities.
Phoebe Putney is ten miles away from Leesburg, the county seat of Lee County. The next closest hospital, Phoebe Sumter Medical Center, is about 25 miles north of Leesburg in Americus, Ga. To the south is Mitchell County Hospital, in Camilla, Ga., almost 40 miles away. The nearest hospital to the west of Leesburg is a couple counties over almost to the Georgia-Alabama state line. And thirty miles east of Leesburg is Phoebe Worth Medical Center all the way in Sylvester, Ga.
And that’s not the only constraint residents in the area face. As Andy Miller discussed with Celeste Headlee in a recent segment on On Second Thought, Southwest Georgia has really high healthcare costs. That area recently ranked second-worst in the nation for their high premiums on health insurance plans purchased through the exchange (also called the marketplace), Miller told Headlee.
Complicating this bleak landscape is the fact that Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital is not providing (or perhaps not able to provide) the best care. The hospital only received one star out of five from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS). CMS does an annual review of hospitals and provides quality ratings based on factors like safety of care, readmission rates and patient experience. Phoebe Putney was one of only four hospitals in Georgia to receive only a one star rating in 2016.
There’s been a lot of back and forth between Lee County and Dougherty County, with competing claims that the new hospital is or is not necessary. Local station WALB and local paper the Albany Herald have extensively covered the issue, as Lee and Dougherty Counties’ respective county commissions’ have solicited impact studies and officials have letters sent between the two bodies. While folks like Will Geer, the man behind Phoebe Factoids, has been an outspoken critic of Phoebe Putney and is championing a new hospital going up in the area.
Ultimately, however, everyone is dealing with the consequences of a state government committed to keeping the healthcare system in this state dysfunctional.
Leaders in this state could have expanded Medicaid ages ago. They could have already improved reimbursement rates for doctors that accept state-run Medicaid. They could have boosted funding for programs that support doctors working in underserved communities. They could have increased access to screenings and preventative healthcare. They could have invested in rural hospitals and rural healthcare networks to make them better.
Meanwhile, folks like state Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgen could actually represent consumers and not just approve every rate hike health insurance companies ask for.
But none of these things have happened.
Our policy makers and elected officials would rather protect the status quo than improve the healthcare landscape. Leaders in Lee and Dougherty Counties shouldn’t have to fight over a new hospital going up. Instead, they should just have state leaders who actually want to invest in their communities and make residents healthier. Our local communities will continue to suffer under state leadership that refuses to make anything better.