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February 18--  Four of Georgia's rural hospitals have closed in the last two years and others are having a hard time paying the bills.

Lower Oconee Community Hospital in Glenwood has closed its doors and the Candler County Hospital in Metter is still open only because the County Commission secured a $1 million loan last week to keep it afloat. The hospital borrowed $3.5 million last October.

The head of the Glenwood hospital says some of its 100 employees have been laid off while ownership considers restructuring into some kind of urgent care center.

Alan Kent, CEO of Meadows Regional Medical Center in Vidalia, says smaller towns don't have the patient load to support hospital overhead.

"I do think that more and more of these small hospitals are potentially going to go away or consider some type of restructuring so they don't have the overhead of a entire hospital.  Maybe they could serve as some type of urgent care center, a free-standing emergency room or just a good home for a good doctor and a good EMS," he observed.

Kent says Meadows is making money so far this year but still has financial challenges due to changes in health insurance.

"The hospital occupancy continues to grow.  We are right at budget for the first seven months of the fiscal year, so we've had a profitable year so far.

"We are expecting to have some continuing impacts from this Blue Cross shift for the state merit health plan which is going to pay the hospital less.  Medicare typically finds many reasons to pay hospitals less, so we'll have more of that.  

"We are fortunate to have had some momentum and to have had the quality and financial success which is going to be the key to grow and serve patients in our area.

"A lot of the smaller hospitals are more vulnerable to the shifts in the market," Kent said.

Since 2000, eight rural hospitals have closed in Georgia.

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