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Rural hospitals face financial hurdles in North Alabama

At Lawrence Medical Center, about $3 million worth of care is not being reimbursed every year.

Posted: Nov 21, 2019 7:17 PM
Updated: Nov 21, 2019 9:20 PM

Small hospitals across the country are facing big financial problem. But, a couple of local doctors believe the challenges they face can actually help improve the quality of care patients recieve. 

Siridao Cheng and her husband only expected to be practicing in Moulton for three years. 

"But, we fell in love with the community," Cheng said. 

22 years later, she said she would not want to be a pediatrician anywhere else.

"I actually always wanted to be in missionary, but I feel like this is it,"Cheng said. "This a mission field right here in North Alabama."

Cheng and her husband are the only pediatricians in Lawrence County. She said fewer doctors are willing to work in rural communities. 

"We don't have much (of a) back up call," Cheng said. "We have to take calls all the time, 24/7."

Balancing finances is a daily struggle at Lawrence Medical Center. The CEO, Dean Griffin said there are about $3 million worth of care a year that is not being reimbursed. 

"We're the only hospital in a county of about 34,000 people," Griffin said. 

It is a hospital that refuses to turn away patients if they are unable to pay. He said being an affiliate of Huntsville Hospital does help by mainly providing supplies at a lower cost. 

Griffin said it is about being efficient with the resources they do have, and relying on the government to make changes. 

"It's very difficult, especially in the state of Alabama, with some of the lowest reimbursement in the country," Griffin said. 

However, recent changes to medicare rules could help. Last month, rural hospitals started getting more money due to changes in the formula used to calculate reimbursements. 

He expects it to add an additional $100,000 yearly. But he called it a first step.

"It's not a solution, but it will help us," Griffin said. 

While the future remains unknown for rural hospitals, for now, Dr. Cheng is not going anywhere. 

"I don't know what I would do without being a doctor, that is all I want to do," Cheng said. 

The center is giving the county an economic boost. It provides about 200 jobs, and an economic impact that exceeds $24 million a year.

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