RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Rural America is losing its hospitals. More than a hundred hospitals in rural communities have closed since 2010. And the pace of these closures is picking up as financial pressures squeeze hospitals in small towns across the country. And when these hospitals close, the communities lose access to health care. They also lose high-paying jobs.
NPR and Kaiser Health News are spending this year following the historic town of Fort Scott, Kan. The 132-year-old Catholic hospital founded by nuns in the state's pioneer days closed at the end of 2018. Sarah Jane Tribble is a reporter for Kaiser Health News. And she has been in Fort Scott, looking at how the community is coping with this loss. And she is in our studio this morning.
Thanks for coming in.
SARAH JANE TRIBBLE: Thank you.
MARTIN: Was the city prepared for this closure? Did they see it coming?
TRIBBLE: No, they didn't. Even though another hospital nearby had closed in 2015, the community was convinced Mercy would stay in Fort Scott because of the history there. But there's also a lot of need in the community. About one in every four children lives in poverty, and there's a lot of health disparities. Obesity, diabetes and premature deaths all happen earlier there.
MARTIN: So, I mean, what's been the effect of this? How are people coping?
TRIBBLE: Well, town leaders are hopeful but not everyone is. In March, I talked to Pat Wheeler. She is 65. And her husband has been sick since January, right after the hospital closed. So she's been driving back and forth an hour to Joplin, Mo., to make sure he gets surgeries and care. I talked to her outside one day when she was smoking a cigarette.
PAT WHEELER: I don't understand how they can just so blatantly close the hospital. I mean, where is the humanity? You know, what are people like us supposed to do? - all of us senior citizens. And the government - they don't care. They don't care at all.
MARTIN: I mean, is something like a hospital the only option for these people, Sarah Jane? I mean, in a lot of communities, I know a hospital may close. But there are, at least, some other clinics or facilities around. Is that the case here?
TRIBBLE: That is the case. And Fort Scott was in kind of a unique position. While the hospital itself was based with Mercy out of St. Louis, Mo., Reta Baker, the CEO of the local hospital, grew up on a farm south of town. She spent more than half her life at Mercy Fort Scott hospital - 37 years. Here's a bit of her talking about closing the hospital.
RETA BAKER: I feel a deep love and a deep passion for the community. And, well, I will go down working hard for the community. And they say a good captain goes down with their ship. And I guess in one hand, I feel like I'm going down with the ship. But I have worked really hard to put pieces in place to hold the community together for health care.
MARTIN: So what pieces...
MARTIN: ...Does she talk about?
TRIBBLE: Yeah. Baker has put together - she put together the four outpatient clinics and had them given - sold them to a federally qualified health care center.
TRIBBLE: These are special organizations that get funding from the federal government to take care of poorer populations. The county and city took over the EMS ambulance services. In a last-minute save, she convinced a hospital 30 miles away to take over the emergency department for two years.
MARTIN: So she's hoping some of that can fill the void of this hospital closing. You're going to embark on more reporting on this topic. What are you hoping to learn? What questions do you still need to ask?
TRIBBLE: So about 20% of Americans live in rural America. And it's just too simple and depressing to think that these are unhealthy places losing population. The big question we want to ask, where - with NPR and Kaiser Health News and in Fort Scott is, are hospitals the only option? Or is there some better way for these communities to survive and thrive?
MARTIN: Sarah Jane Tribble is a senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News. Sarah Jane, thanks so much.
TRIBBLE: Thank you.
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