More than half of Kansas’ 105 rural hospitals at risk of closing

More than 50% of rural hospitals in Kansas are at risk of closing. Factfinder 12 Investigator finds how residents could be impacted.
Published: Apr. 4, 2023 at 5:21 PM CDT
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NORTON, Kan. (KWCH) - More than 50% of rural Kansas hospitals are at risk of closing. It’s a problem impacting small-town hospitals across the U.S., each with a story to tell.

FactFinder 12 looked into the issue, visiting Norton, among communities hoping its hospital can survive. Norman Kline has called Norton home since 1976. His son needs regular IV treatments at the local hospital, Norton County Hospital.

“He has to have that every month or his immune system bottoms out,” Kline explained. “When you have that, you can bleed internally.”

A major question for Kline, if his son can’t get the treatment he needs at the local hospital, where can he go?

Like many rural hospitals across the U.S. Norton County Hospital is facing financial struggles. Of Kansas’ 105 rural hospitals, data from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform shows 56 at risk of closing.

“I watch a lot of news and I’ve heard that about a lot of them,” said Norton resident Shila Holterman who’s lived in the community for 36 years. “I don’t know what they’re going to do but they need to try to do something to help us so we can keep them.”

The data from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform shows that Norton County Hospital has been in the red over the last year and is one of 631 hospitals across the U.S. at risk of closing.

“What would happen? It’s scary, very scary,” said Norton resident JoAnn Bowen who’s lived in the town since 1968.

Norton Regional Health Foundation Director Katie Wagner remains involved after resigning from her communications position with the hospital due to budget cuts.

“There are some financial struggles currently and they’re making some hard decisions on expenses,” she said.

With her continued role as foundation director, Wagner has been part of board meetings where members discuss the financial situation.

“It’s pretty grim when we’re looking at the finances because we had rough times without having providers a few years ago, and it’s very costly to have locum providers,” Wagner said. “We’re still trying to recover from those days as well as those during COVID. I hope the future will lend itself to making progress here but I think some changes will have to be made.”

A big issue for Norton is that the next closest hospitals are at least 30 minutes away and many of them only provide certain care.

“Norton County Hospital is a Level-4 trauma center and so there are many things that we can take in the door and at least stabilize patients and get them to more advanced care, if needed,” Wagner explained. “We are the only hospital in a 60-mile radius that delivers babies.”

When asked if North County Hospital could be closing in the next couple of years, Wagner said that’s possible.

“It’s very challenging,” she said. “It’s difficult to plan ahead knowing that you have different services and different people paying different things based on their insurance and their coverage. The reality is that some rural hospitals could close just due to not being able to operate.”

With Norton potentially facing a future of difficult decisions, Bowen said it’d be “scary” to not have access to a community hospital.

You can see the financial status of the hospital nearest to where you live here:

FactFinder 12 spoke with the governor’s office Tuesday about what lawmakers are doing about the situation with rural hospitals struggling in Kansas.

FactFinder 12 spoke with the governor’s office about what lawmakers are doing about the situation with rural hospitals struggling in Kansas.

“By far, the most effective way to protect our rural hospitals is to expand Medicaid,” Kansas Governor Laura Kelly said. “Over 70% of Kansans, regardless of political party, support Medicaid expansion because it will create thousands of jobs, increase access to affordable healthcare and boost our rural communities. That’s why I have introduced a bill to expand Medicaid every year since taking office and will continue to do so until we get this done.”

Kansas State Representative Jason Probst recently tried changing language in a bill to allow the governor to make decisions about Medicaid expansion, but it failed.

“The number one thing we could do to help rural hospitals is to expand Medicaid, but there doesn’t seem to be very much of an appetite in the building to do (that),” Probst said. “We know hospitals have a lot of uncompensated care and Medicaid expansion would help with that. Beyond that, there’s been a little bit of talk of trying to change some designations on rural access care hospitals, we’ve made some movement on that, but we haven’t had too many really robust conversations about what to do about rural hospitals.”