Recently, Burns White Executive Committee Member and Professional Liability co-chair, Stuart T. O’Neal, interviewed The Honorable David Shulkin, the Ninth Secretary of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs under President Trump, about some on-going issues related to the healthcare marketplace during these uncertain times. Currently, Dr. Shulkin is President of Shulkin Solutions LLC, where he consults with leading healthcare organizations and companies to foster overall innovation and improve the well being of patients. Dr. Shulkin is also the former President of Morristown Medical Center. During that time, Dr. Shulkin also served as an expert witness on behalf of various hospitals in the defense of corporate liability claims, including claims levied against attorney O’Neal’s clients.
During the interview, the concept of the disappearing rural hospital was discussed. An alarming amount of rural hospitals in this country have either closed or have limited capacity. For example, recently, Sunbury Community Hospital in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, completely shut its doors. This is one example of possibly hundreds of rural hospitals across the country. However, this phenomenon cannot be overlooked. Rural hospital closure has its obvious drawbacks and concerns–an acute lack of local hospital coverage. This, potentially, could negatively impact the healthcare of citizens who now have to travel 25-30 minutes to a hospital, instead of 5-10 minutes. In cases, minutes matter in saving lives and addressing serious health conditions. A secondary effect of these rural hospital closures is more of a trickle down economic effect–a loss of a “town-centerish” hospital and complex that not only serves, and in some ways, protects the community but is also a sense of pride for the community. The amount of lost jobs by a rural hospital closure is also profound, and leads to those with nursing and other advanced degrees to potentially leave the community in search of new, stable work in the healthcare industry. In a pandemic era, this should be unheard of, but isn’t.
Whether it be reduced reimbursement rates, abnormally high medical malpractice verdicts and/or settlements in this state that has no caps for personal injury awards, or now, the reduced income for many hospitals in light of the slashed number of elective surgeries that are able to take place given the pandemic, hospitals, rural or otherwise, are hurting. Given what the pandemic has shown us–the need for hospitals armed with the proper equipment and stockpiled as well–our country currently faces a serious hypocrisy. How can we rely on any hospital or hospital system and expect ready made solutions and equipment delivery and distribution, when many hospitals cant even afford to operate? Our country expects a lot from hospitals and its workers without fully understanding how dire their situation is financially. Serious steady monetary commitment, with oversight, from the state and federal level is needed to maintain all hospitals as well as its workers, so when this pandemic possibly happens again, our hospitals and hospital systems will be ready.