Op-Ed: Another rural hospital is closing- What will it take for Alabama to finally expand Medicaid?

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama (Cullman Tribune file photo)

Today (Friday, March 6, 2020), when the Pickens County Medical Center closes its doors, it will become yet another sad statistic among the now 14 hospitals in Alabama that have shuttered their doors since 2011. Eight of those have been in rural communities.

There are other shocking statistics, too, about the fragile state of our health care system in Alabama. Eighty-eight percent of our rural hospitals are operating in the red. And seventy-five percent of all Alabama hospitals are operating in the red. That means a super-majority of our hospitals can’t pay their bills each month. In spite of this alarming evidence, Alabama’s state leaders still refuse to even consider the one solution that would make a real difference: Medicaid expansion.

That stubbornness begs a number of important questions:

How many more hospitals have to shut down before our state chooses to finally expand Medicaid, the one move that health care leaders agree would do the most to shore up these hospitals?

How long will it be before yet another hospital closes its doors, forcing its staff to look for new jobs and its patients to drive even further to get the care they need?

When will our state’s elected leaders set aside politics and take this step to benefit the more than 300,000 Alabamians who would get access to care? When will they take this step that would help countless local economies by bringing home billions in our own tax dollars?

We cannot afford politically motivated inaction any longer. In fact, data has shown that hospitals are 84-percent more likely to close in states that didn’t expand Medicaid. Since 2011, when Medicaid expansion became available, Alabama has left more than $14 billion on the table by not expanding this program. Those are our own federal tax dollars that are going to fund other states’ health care instead of our own. For the past nine years, that money could have helped keep our hospitals open, supported good jobs in our communities, and provided health coverage for hundreds of thousands of Alabamians.

I’ve spent much of my time the past two years traveling across Alabama hearing from folks about how we can improve access to health care in our state. I’ve met with medical providers, nurses, hospital administrators, patients, city and county officials, and business leaders. And the thing that everyone has agreed on is that we need to be making it easier for people to get the health care they need, not harder. It’s not just good for our health, but it’s also good for our economy. If Alabama expanded Medicaid, it would create approximately 30,000 new jobs in a wide range of sectors across our economy, from health care to retail to construction.

For years, Alabama’s rural hospitals have been warning public officials about the financial cliff they are facing, and expanding Medicaid would provide a huge boost to help them keep their doors open. Instead, Republican politicians in Montgomery and Washington are cheering on efforts to take health care away. It doesn’t make any financial sense, and it sure doesn’t make any sense for the people of Alabama.

For my part, I’ve introduced legislation in the Senate to incentivize Medicaid expansion among states that have not yet done so. It would restore the full level of federal reimbursement for states that expanded the program after 2011. That would help bring home even more of our tax dollars and provide additional years for Alabama to make this transition a successful one.

I just don’t think it’s right to continue to refuse to expand Medicaid. I’m going to keep fighting to make quality health care in Alabama more affordable and easier to access – and I will always stand up against any attempts to take that care away. I just hope my colleagues in Alabama will do the same before we lose yet another vital rural hospital.

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama