Struggling rural Georgia hospital calls it quits

After years of financial struggle, Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Randolph County has announced it will close in 90 days.

For years, a rural Georgia community tried to save its hospital.

They partnered with one of the state’s largest healthcare providers to help manage it. They tried to secure over $10 million for critical improvements to its aging infrastructure. They explored the idea of issuing municipal bonds.

Then, came the final blow: COVID-19.

“Even last week, we were trying to save the hospital,‘' Cuthbert Mayor Steve Whatley told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But we were so devastated from March to May. We’re bleeding.”

After years of financial struggle, Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Randolph County, has announced it will close in 90 days. Remaining will be the county’s family medicine clinic, which will provide services such as physical therapy and radiology, and the Joe-Anne Burgin Nursing Home.

But the loss of the hospital facility is expected to be devastating in a community where the next nearest hospital will be more than 30 miles away and where COVID has taken a heavy toll. At one point in April, the county, which has a population of about 7,700, had the highest rate of infections among Georgia counties.

The closure will mean a higher potential for loss of life, especially among residents with life-threatening conditions.

Experts also have highlighted how such closures are a major blow to the local economy.

“If you lose these hospitals, these communities tend to become literally economically unviable,” said Dave Mosley, a Guidehouse public healthcare consultant who has published numerous rural hospital sustainability reports showing Georgia among the states with the largest number of facilities at high financial risk of closure. “They’re certainly not able to recruit and sustain business while the only employers you have left are governments.”

‘Point of no return'

Officials put up a hard fight to try to save the hospital, said Whatley, who is also the chairman of the Randolph County Hospital Authority.

For months, the hospital’s chief financial officer had attempted to secure funding for capital improvements, Chief Executive Officer Kim Gilman wrote in a prepared statement.

Also, last week, officials had been in talks with a firm that specialized in turning around distressed hospital systems.

Officials also promoted the state’s Rural Hospital Tax Credit program, which gives taxpayers a state income tax credit for contributing to qualified rural hospital organizations.

Sadly, none of the efforts were fruitful, officials said.

Gilman said the hospital had been operating “on the brink” for years. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, officials had not been able to finalize a plan that could ensure the hospital’s future success, she said.

“Once the crisis hit, it simply pushed our hospital past the point of no return,‘' Gilman said.

Whatley said that officials had received money through the federal COVID-19 relief program but it hadn’t been enough to stop the bleeding.

Nikki Bryant, an independent pharmacist in Cuthbert, was particularly distressed to learn of the closure.

“There’s a lot of talk about rural health care and how health disparities are so sensitive in this area,” Bryant said. “I just can’t imagine why or how at the state level they could allow this to happen.”

The hospital is expected to cease operations Oct. 22.

By then, Southwest Georgia Regional will have met all of its obligations to patients and employees, Whatley said.

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which has managed the Randolph County health facilities since 1996, said it was committed to finding jobs for about 50 workers who will be impacted by the closure.

About 90 employees will continue working at the family medical clinic and the nursing home.

As of Tuesday, Randolph County reported 235 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Currently, it reported 40 hospitalizations. Many of the cases came at Joe-Anne Burgin Nursing Home, which has had 17 residents die of the infection.

Nationwide, more than 40 hospitals have closed or filed for bankruptcy this year, with the majority operating in rural communities, Randoph County officials said.