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Tennessee's Copper Basin Medical Center latest rural hospital to shutter

Doctors had only been seeing about 10 patients a day in the emergency room, which is about one-third of what a hospital of that size needs.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Credit: Google EarthCredit: Google Earth

The Copperhill and Ducktown communities in Tennessee are now without medical care as the rural area's only hospital, Copper Basin Medical Center, shut its doors for good Sunday.

CEO Dan Johnson told local ABC News affiliate NewsChannel 9 that doctors had only been seeing about 10 patients a day in the emergency room, which is about one-third of what a hospital of that size needs to stay afloat.

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He said changes in healthcare administration led to a gap in funding for the hospital, as well as less of a need. Yet the next closest facility is 15 miles away in Fannin County, which means those in need of emergency care would likely need to be transported by helicopter.

According to the Cleveland Daily Banner, the hospital had not been accepting new patients for some time, but had been providing inpatient and emergency services.

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The hospital administrator and financial officer are traveling to Nashville this week to speak with officials of the Tennessee Medical Association, with the goal of seeing which options are available -- including finding a potential buyer for the facility.

Recently, the Polk County Commission took over a large chunk of a loan the hospital had been unable to pay, and the city of Ducktown took up ownership of smaller portion, according to the Daily Banner. The city of Cooper Basin wasn't able to assume part of the loan due to a lack of funds. The loan enabled the hospital to continue outpatient and emergency care until Sunday, but now the well has run dry.

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"We have suspended operation," reads a message on the hospital's website. "We hope for a few short months, in order to obtain working capital (cash). The next 45 days will be our most critical period for survival. We have endured needed staff reductions, and are critically short on supplies.

"Copper Basin Medical Center in Copperhill was founded on the principle that excellent medical care should be available to everyone, and we strive to make our community and surrounding region a better place," the message read.

In July, research from the Chartis Center for Rural Health, in conjunction with iVantage Health Analytics, confirmed that rural healthcare providers serve populations which are not only socioeconomically disadvantaged, but suffer from numerous health disparities and poorer outcomes than those in urban settings -- making it difficult for them to operate in the black.

Since 2010, 80 rural hospitals have closed, according to the research, and many more are struggling to stay open. The implication is that the rural health safety net us unraveling; 41 percent of rural hospitals are operating at a negative margin, the data showed. Numerous factors impact these operating margins, including payer mix and the percentage of uninsured; allowable cost-based Medicare reimbursement; the employment rate and the related availability of employer-sponsored commercial insurance; payer-negotiated rates; the availability of primary care; and population health and health disparities.

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