Tennessee's economic development officials want to help rescue rural hospitals. They propose dispatching restructuring specialists to a dozen or more hospitals that are teetering on the edge.
Tennessee has lost more hospitals since 2012 than any state but Texas, and the Department of Economic and Community Development argues that hospitals are doubly important for rural communities. They're often the largest employer around, and without one, it's virtually impossible to recruit major businesses to the area.
"Rural hospital closures have impacted us in a very direct way and have affected our ability to recruit to certain rural areas," ECD's Sammie Arnold told lawmakers during a recent hearing.
The proposal, dubbed the Tennessee Rural Hospital Transformation Act, would direct ECD to send contractors to rural hospitals at risk of closure to help develop a stabilization plan.
Rep. Sabi Kumar, R-Springfield, says as a surgeon, he appreciates the adjustment in thinking: that the loss of a hospital is not just a health concern.
"It's an economic need, so we need to lean on the economic community to help these hospitals be viable," he said.
However, the state consultants may not recommend that every hospital be saved.
The Tennessee Hospital Association warns that some communities have shrunk so much that they can no longer support a full-service medical center. But those hospitals are often so strapped that they can’t spend the time or money on figuring out the best way to downsize and still offer health care in the community.
"They don't have the money to go out and hire consultants and do a survey and come up with a solution," THA president Craig Becker said. "They're fighting to make payroll."
The legislation has sailed through the committee process but funding has not yet been identified. Becker says it would take $1 million to make a meaningful difference.
So far, that money is not in the state budget under consideration.