When the local hospital closed five years ago in rural Lee County, Va., Supervisor Larry Mosley said the residents in the westernmost county in the Old Dominion were devastated.
But in a twist not often heard these days, residents are getting ready to celebrate its grand reopening in the coming months.
“I can’t go to the grocery store or Walmart without getting asked when the new hospital is going to open,” Mosley said.
Lee County Regional Medical Center is set to open later this year in Pennington Gap, with about 100 employees. Mosley noted that the new owner, Florida-based Americore Health, committed to hire as many local residents as possible.
As of June 30, there were more than 7,200 designated Health Professional Shortage Areas lacking adequate primary care nationwide, nearly 60 percent in rural regions, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration. The nation needs 4,022 primary care facilities to fill the gap.
The opening of a new full-service hospital in a rural area is an anomaly. In the past eight years, 87 hospitals have closed in rural counties, according to a study by the Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina.
“People don’t realize what they have ‘til it’s gone,” Mosley said. “It’s not good for us to be without a hospital.”
In Lee County, the 24,000-plus residents were shocked when their local hospital closed without warning Oct. 1, 2013, when the hospital’s owners said they were losing money, Mosley said, noting that the then-owners also made a point of referring patients to one of its “sister” properties farther away, which may have played a part in its downfall.
A petition to reopen the hospital garnered more than 10,000 signatures.
In the past five years, “it’s been hard on our citizens,” Mosley said. “Sometimes you have to just put them in a car, you know, because the distance they have to travel is an hour. For some it’s a little bit more. We’ve had people actually die.”
The effort to reopen the hospital began almost immediately after the hospital closed with the county, the farm bureau, town council and community leaders meeting and donating funds to keep the lights on at the building.
A local banker, Sonny Martin, who has since died, helped lead the charge, Mosley said.
A state lawmaker passed a measure paving the way for the county to create a hospital authority to begin the process of reopening the hospital. The county kept the lights on and the boilers going at the empty building, spending about $500,000 over five years.
“It’s just like a car,” Mosley noted. “If you leave a car sitting for five years, I’m sorry, it’s not going to start when you get in it. We knew if we didn’t keep it in that manner, we were gonna be in bad trouble, it was going to be a hard car to sell.”
The county tried to get the former owners to donate the building to the county; when that didn’t work, the county had the building appraised to find out how much it would cost to buy it. It came in at $400,000. The former owners also had the building appraised, and that appraisal came in higher.
The hospital’s former owner ended up selling the building to the county for $1.6 million. The new owner, Florida-based Americore Health, is paying the county for the building.
“It’s uplifting to think we’re going to get these services back that were gone for five years,” Mosley said.
Americore is committed to staying put, he said, and is planning to eventually add a rehabilitation center and a black lung clinic.
For other rural counties out there facing a similar situation, Mosley said “you best get the community involved. It’s been a long hard road for us. You’ve got to find the right organization to run the hospital; there are very few out there, to be honest.”
If your county has a hospital that appears to be cutting back services, “they should come to county leaders and ask ‘What can you do to help us?’”
On the other side of the coin, he noted, “you need to support your rural hospital instead of going somewhere else outside your county.”
Mosley said he expects a warm welcome for Lee County Regional Medical Center when they cut the ribbon, with not only local residents in attendance, but Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.), who also played a role in helping the county on its long journey to reopen its hospital.