Its old slogan: “Your Friends on the Hill.” (HD Media photo)
“Rural hospitals must leverage the full resources of their communities in order to survive.” That’s the “most critical” lesson learned from last year’s closing of Williamson Memorial Hospital in West Virginia, Taylor Sisk writes for National Geographic in a well-illustrated story about hospital closures in Appalachian counties bordering Kentucky.
The hospital is “scheduled to reopen, most likely in the fall,” Sisk reports. It has been bought by the Williamson Health and Wellness Center, “a federally qualified health center that over the past few years has been a catalyst in the community for a wide range of public health initiatives” in a county ranked the state’s second unhealthiest. But keeping people healthy also keeps them out of hospital, so “The health of the community and viability of its hospital will be dependent on a successful symbiosis.”
The solution to the hospital’s problem is not typical, but could provide a lesson to rural communities at a time when rural hospital closures are accelerating and one in five rural hospitals have been estimated to be at risk of closing due to financial difficulties.
“In some cases, the answer is the merging of hospitals or acquisition by an outside entity, solutions that offer economy of scale—purchasing power, consolidated administration, access to advanced technology—but come at the risk of the loss of attention to the community’s needs and concerns,” Sisk writes. “The other option, maintaining an independent hospital, is increasingly difficult. Doing so requires rethinking.”
There’s another unusual aspect to the Williamson hospital, which once billed itself as “Your Friends on the Hill.” Sisk notes, “There’s another hospital just a couple of miles from Williamson, across the Tug Fork [of the Big Sandy] River in Kentucky,” Tug Valley ARH Regional Medical Center
in South Williamson. “But crossing state lines creates issues with insurance, both public and private. The closest in-state hospital is 35 minutes away in Logan. Neither hospital is home to ‘Your Friends on the Hill’.”
Sisk also looks at the closed Jellico Medical Center on the Kentucky border in Tennessee, which has had more hospital closures, population-wise, than any other state; and at Lee County Community Hospital, at Virginia’s western tip, which reopened July 1 “under ownership of the region’s new health-care behemoth, Ballad Health. Ballad is the product of the merging in 2018 of two hospital systems—Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System. They were competitors in southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee, an arrangement most health-care observers in the region agree was impractical. In exchange for approval of the merger, the hospital systems signed agreements with Tennessee and Virginia regulators committing to addressing persistent public-health concerns. Ballad selected as its primary areas of focus substance misuse, tobacco use, obesity, and childhood trauma.”