Under normal circumstances, the closing of a community hospital in Sumner County would be disturbing, yet not surprising — another small-town health facility falling victim to higher costs and fewer patients.
Circumstances are anything but normal right now. The coronavirus epidemic has exposed the nation’s disastrous shortfall of hospital beds, trained staff and needed equipment, a situation that will worsen in the weeks ahead.
That makes the closure of the 63-bed Sumner Community Hospital a crisis, one that demands immediate attention from Gov. Laura Kelly, the Legislature and the broader health industry.
The hospital’s doors closed suddenly Thursday in Wellington, a city of about 7,800 south of Wichita. RHG Consolidated, based in Kansas City, shut the doors on a facility it purchased in 2018, blaming a revenue shortfall and a lack of patient demand.
“We have tried so hard to save our local hospital and know that this is heartbreaking for our community,” Sumner Community CEO Cindy West said in a statement. “As time has passed, it became obvious that the ability to overcome the challenges we faced was impossible.”
To be sure, the facility had struggled for many years. Doctors often referred patients to hospitals in Wichita, leaving Sumner Community’s beds empty. The county’s population, about 23,000 people, strained to support a local hospital.
But the closure will mean hardship. Because the emergency room is shutting down, critically ill patients will have to take a 40-minute ambulance ride to Wichita instead of a short trip to the local ER.
The hospital was one of Wellington’s biggest employers, and those jobs will apparently be lost as well.
Sumner Community’s problems are not isolated. A 2019 study showed almost one-third of rural Kansas hospitals at “high risk” of closure. Two-thirds of those hospitals are considered essential to their communities.
The stubborn refusal of Kansas Republicans to expand Medicaid coverage has made this bad situation worse. For years, small rural hospitals have told lawmakers that the additional revenue from the state-federal program would provide an essential financial cushion. That hasn’t changed many minds, or votes.
On Friday, some in the GOP continued to insist that rural hospitals’ problems aren’t linked to Medicaid. Yet they’ve offered virtually no solution to the health care crisis that is sweeping across rural Kansas.
Lawmakers can’t duck the issue any longer. Kansas has roughly 3.3 hospital beds per 1,000 residents, fewer than China, Cuba, Japan and Argentina. Ukraine has more than twice as many hospital beds, proportionally, than Kansas.
If the novel coronavirus escalates in the state — Kansas had reported eight COVID-19 cases as of Sunday — those lost beds in Sumner County might mean the difference between life or death for some patients.
The Legislature should step forward and find money that could be used to reopen Sumner Community Hospital. Perhaps the University of Kansas Health System could play a role, as it has in other cases. If not, other solutions may be possible.
Rural Kansas should not be at greater risk from COVID-19 than those who live in urban areas. The ongoing crisis in rural health care must be addressed, as the number of coronavirus cases multiplies in the state.