WVU Medicine takes over struggling hospital in rural West Virginia

The system is going to take over Welch Community Hospital, a small hospital in the southern part of the state. WVU says patients will get access to more services.

In his State of the State Address, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Welch Community Hospital is in a rural area that “got left way, way, way, way behind.”

And the hospital has had a “tough going,” with serious financial struggles, Justice said. The state had managed the 65-bed hospital in the southern part of the state. It’s the only acute care hospital in McDowell County, home to about 18,000 residents, according to Census data.

But Justice is optimistic that the hospital will have a brighter future, now that WVU Medicine is going to take over the hospital.

In the next several weeks, WVU Health System, the state of West Virginia, and McDowell County are expected to sign a letter of intent for Welch Community Hospital to join the WVU Health System by the end of the year. Regulators must give final approval of the deal. WVU Medicine and the governor announced the deal last week.

“As we assessed the ongoing healthcare needs and challenges in McDowell County and our own ability to continue managing a hospital so important to the community, we concluded having Welch Community Hospital join the WVU Medicine family made all the sense in the world,” Justice said in a statement.

WVU Medicine and the governor said the hospital, and the area’s residents, would get more access to healthcare services. The hospital also joins a health system with a common electronic medical record, WVU Medicine noted.

Albert Wright, president and CEO of the WVU Health System, said he’s looking forward to having the hospital join the system.

“We’re also very excited by the idea of us extending our network of care into one of West Virginia’s most distressed areas to care for some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens,” Wright said in a statement. “This really cuts to who we are as an organization and the spirit of our mission.”

The state is looking to find long-term care providers to take over the hospital’s 59-bed long-term care unit.

Rural hospitals across America are struggling to stay alive. Since 2010, more than 130 rural hospitals have closed, according to an American Hospital Association report.

More than 600 rural hospitals, nearly 30% of America’s rural hospitals, are at risk of closing in the near future, according to the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform. Over 200 hospitals are at immediate risk of closure, the center projected.

Rural hospitals account for about 35% of all of America’s hospitals, and many of them are small but indispensable healthcare providers for their communities. About half of all rural hospitals have 25 beds or less.

When rural hospitals shut down, other hospitals experience additional stress, a Penn State Health study found. The researchers examined 53 rural hospital closures and the impact on 93 bystander hospitals. Two years after the closure of a rural hospital, emergency department visits increased by an average of 10.2%.

Read more: Rural hospital closures more likely to hurt Black, Hispanic residents