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Martin County residents host community meeting to save hospital, clinics

A community meeting in Williamston was held Wednesday night to provide updates on efforts to save five health clinics from shutting down and reopen the county's only hospital. On August 5th, Martin General Hospital abruptly closed when its owner Quorum Health announced it filed for bankruptcy. Now, five clinics associated with the hospital are also facing closures: Martin Family Medicine, Williamson Heart and Vascular, Roanoke Surgical, Roanoke Orthopedics and Martin Specialty Clinics.

A dedicated group of residents are organizing to restore the hospital, save the clinics, and push local officials to support their efforts.

Three doctors — Dr. Steven Manning, Dr. Dhruva Chawla, and Dr. Harsh Chawla — spoke at the event about efforts to find a new health system to buy the clinics. They said they've reached out to ECU Health and other regional health systems, but so far no bites. The deadline to find a buyer is Oct. 5.

As for the hospital, the doctors said they're looking into establishing a local nonprofit to operate the hospital, but that it will take time to get things going again. Dr. Dhruva said the earliest could be January 1.

He added there are three things they're waiting on to fully support the hospital. The first is for Quorum's bankruptcy proceedings to end in Delaware courts, where the for-profit company is incorporated. While Quorum is in legal proceedings, it's assets, including medical equipment and the hospital's license, are tied up. When it's concluded, they can begin bidding on the equipment and transferring the license.

Transferring a license is much quicker than seeking a new license, Dr. Dhruva said, and they're hopeful they'll be able to purchase the old equipment. Dr. Dhruva said the equipment at Martin General, though older, is operable and that it's unlikely to be sold to other companies.

The second item they're waiting on is for the State Assembly to pass legislation regulating Rural Emergency Hospitals, or REHs. REH is a new Medicare designation established by Congress in 2021 intended to support outpatient and emergency services in rural communities. With the designation, hospitals will receive an additional 5% payment from each service from Medicare that is not charge to the patient. On top of that, they'll receive monthly payments from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The state plays a role in establishing and regulating REHs. Each state must pass licensing, staffing, and other regulatory requirements before a hospital in their state can receive REH status. So, far 15 states have passed such laws, but not North Carolina, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The legislation for REH has been tied up with the budget, which is now two months overdue. Dr. Dhruva said state lawmakers are looking to excising REH portions of the budget bill so they can pass it next week. The doctors urged those in attendance to call on state lawmakers to pass REH legislation as soon as possible.

The third is Medicaid expansion, which has also been held up with the state budget bill. Earlier this year state lawmakers passed legislation expanding Medicaid. It's passage meant that more than 600,000 North Carolinians could enroll, but its implementation is reliant on passing a budget. On August 28, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kody Kinsley said the anticipated start date of October 1 has been pushed back to a later unknown date.

Implementing Medicaid expansion could make hospitals and clinics in rural areas more sustainable operations. Rural communities, like Martin County, have higher rates of uninsured and underinsured people, meaning small rural hospitals are often not paid enough to cover the cost of delivering care.

The clock is ticking to get Martin County's hospital back up and running. The impacts have already been felt. Right now, the closest emergency rooms for residents are out of the county, in Washington and Greenville. The likelihood of retaining staff, including nurses and administrators, decreases over time. For example, the hospital's only cardiologist has left for a job in Wilson County, and cardiologists are hard to come by.

Martin General is the 11th hospital to close in North Carolina this year. Quorum said it lost $13 million last year. The hospital's Marketing Director cited the county's declining population and fewer people using the hospital. A press released on August 3 cited a county Feasibility Study stating nearly 80% of Martin County residents seek care from other health care providers.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.