There was a time when we took our community hospitals for granted. Not anymore. With COVID-19 killing 1,000 Americans every day, Georgians rest a little easier knowing they can attain high-quality healthcare at their local hospital should they or their loved ones contract this terrible disease.
But at a time when we need them most, community hospitals are facing unprecedented financial challenges. The pandemic response has strained their resources while also causing them to suspend the profit-making elective procedures that allow them to keep their doors open.
Community hospitals provide a service that’s critical to our families and to our economy. Their doors are open to all, no matter what ails them, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Serving all means ministering to a patient’s healthcare needs even if they’re uninsured and can’t pay or have Medicaid, which reimburses providers below the cost of care, or need a procedure that isn’t profitable.
Of course, a normal business that provides a significant portion of its services for free or below cost would quickly close. Nonprofit hospitals, though, aren’t normal businesses, and every Georgian has a stake in protecting them from predatory competition.
That’s why I strongly oppose a recent move by the Georgia Department of Community Health to approve four new freestanding emergency departments associated with for-profit HCA, including the two facilities that Memorial Health in Savannah wants to build in Bryan and Chatham counties.
These freestanding EDs pose an existential threat to our community hospitals, including Liberty Regional Medical Center in my House district, Liberty County.
Freestanding EDs don’t operate under the same rules as nonprofit hospitals. They are developed to drive up profits and siphon off the revenues that community hospitals depend on. This doesn’t create customer- friendly “competition.” It rigs the system to enrich a few at the cost of the many.
Unlike community hospitals, freestanding EDs can turn away the uninsured or underinsured and cater to only the highest-paying customers. They also drive up costs for patients and payors significantly, resulting in surprise bills and sticker shock when patients are required to pay high co-pays and deductibles. The Georgia Department of Community Health ignored studies by the federal government that caution against developing freestanding EDs because of the increased costs for patients. Georgia’s rural hospitals are closing at a rate that’s among the highest in the nation. Last month, Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert announced that it would close in October due to financial stress aggravated by the pandemic.
The loss of a hospital devastates a community. It’s not just the poor who suffer. Even those with good insurance lose access to the broad spectrum of care that only hospitals provide. Economic development plummets because businesses that offer high-paying jobs simply won’t consider locating in a region without a hospital.
We can’t let that happen here. Today, our hospitals are the only providers who can meet the challenges presented by COVID-19. We will eventually defeat this deadly virus, but our need for community hospitals will persist.
We must protect our community hospitals, and we can start by demanding that the Georgia Department of Community Health stop undermining them by approving for-profit freestanding EDs in their back yard. These freestanding EDs harm hospitals and result in patients paying more for the same care. For-profit freestanding EDs are bad for Georgia.
Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway