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NC Mayor Walks To Washington (Again) To Advocate For Rural Hospitals

Kaiser Health News

On Monday morning, a mayor in eastern North Carolina will begin walking to Washington, D.C, to highlight the challenges facing rural hospitals. Adam O'Neal is mayor of the small town of Belhaven, where the only hospital closed about a year ago.

After a heart attack or other health care emergency, the time it takes to get to a hospital can mean the difference between life and death.

Mayor Adam O'Neal says for the roughly 1,600 residents of Belhaven, "you have to go 30 miles on country roads for emergency care."

"But that's not the story," he says. "The story is there were people that already had to go 50 miles to get to Belhaven!"

The Belhaven hospital was the hospital for Beaufort County and Hyde County. Shortly after it closed last summer, Mayor O'Neal walked to Washington, D.C, to raise awareness of how important rural hospitals are and point out how much some are struggling.

Now he's doing it again, taking a route that'll last 283 miles: one mile for each hospital the National Rural Health Association reports is vulnerable to closure.  

"It's a picture that is growing into a bigger problem than we had anticipated," says Brock Slabach, senior vice president of the association.

Rural hospitals face several challenges. They often treat a higher percentage of uninsured and aging patients. They can struggle to attract doctors. And Slabach says their reimbursement rates keep dropping because of state and federal changes. 

"We've had numerous reductions in payments by Medicaid and other payers," he says. "In the rural South especially, Medicaid is an important part of the operations of a hospital."

Plus, many Southern states decided not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. 

That was part of the problem for Belhaven's hospital. For that reason, Mayor Adam O'Neal, a Republican, is calling for expansion.

He says the plight of rural hospitals like his is about more than just health care. 

"The hospital, as with many rural communities, is the hub of all the business in town," he says. "It was the largest employer in town at 129 employees."

And some residents say it was a source of community pride.

O'Neal says about 20 people will join him on his walk to D.C. It'll finish with a rally in front of the Capitol building on June 15.