HLM: Where will people in Wheeler County go now for their care?
Lewis: They will have to go 20 to 30 miles in any direction to find a hospital. For physicians, when the hospital is gone, the physicians go and it creates a problem. Those people in those communities are going to struggle to find access. In many cases what ends up happening is if the emergency medical services stay, they end up using the ambulance to carry low-acuity patients to healthcare when they don't have any other means of access.
HLM: Can Oconee and other rural hospitals restructure for different services, such as stand-alone emergency departments or urgent care centers?
Lewis: In Georgia there is some work being done legislatively to find a licensure vehicle that would allow restructuring to occur, but right now we do not have regulatory or licensing vehicles to allow for standalone emergency departments or anything like that.
HLM: What happens to the communities when these hospitals shutter?
Lewis: If there is not a hospital, there won't be any future economic development. If a hospital closes and the community has an industry, they have a strong possibility of losing that industry simply because the industry cannot assume the liability for accidents and healthcare for its employees if it can't find access to care.
These hospitals are economic engines and when they close, the community goes into an economic paralysis. Nothing ever goes back there again from an industry standpoint or a jobs growth standpoint.