On a Friday afternoon in late March, some of the most powerful people in Wellington, Kansas, crowded into the office of physician Faustino Naldoza. The civic leaders, were trying to prevail upon state Sen. Larry Alley to side with them in a vote the following week. The state legislature would be deciding on whether to overturn a veto by Gov. Sam Brownback of an expansion of the state healthcare program called KanCare — otherwise known, unfortunately for its prospects, as Medicaid.
Kansas had long rejected the expansion of Medicaid authorized by the Affordable Care Act, until, that is, President Barack Obama left office, and the legislature voted to accept the federal money. The expansion was a lifeline to towns like Wellington. Across Kansas, and throughout much of the rural U.S., small hospitals have been closing. In 2017, Wellington’s Sumner Regional Medical Center joined a growing list of more than 600 rural hospitals that, according to 2016 report by health analytics firm iVantage, are at risk of shuttering, potentially leveling blows to local economies and leaving residents without nearby emergency services and accessible routine care.
Expanding Medicaid, according to Sumner Regional officials, would bring in an extra $750,000 a year, enough to keep it afloat. Alley had nonetheless voted against the expansion, but it passed without him. Then Brownback vetoed the bill, and Alley’s vote became necessary to override the veto.
In Naldoza’s office, according to an account in Sumner Newscow, a local news site, and interviews by The Intercept, town leaders brought every argument they had to bear on Alley.
Wellington’s mayor, Shelley Hansel, recalled an injury to her young son, wondering if he would have even survived if the facility hadn’t been so close by. J.C. Long, president of the town’s Bank of Commerce and himself a former firebrand Republican lawmaker, told Alley that “good policy should trump good politics.” From his perspective as a banker, a struggling hospital was better than no hospital —and if the hospital closed, the community would suffer through job losses (Sumner employs 130 people, according to Stacy Davis, the Director of Economic Development for Sumner County).
Earlier in the day, officials from GKN Aerospace Precision Machining, one of the town’s leading employers, explained that their workplace insurance premiums would jump, because insurers don’t look kindly on factories with no emergency room anywhere nearby. What’s more, recruitment is difficult in towns without hospitals, they said, and absent one in Wellington, the company would consider moving elsewhere.
That Monday, the House fell three votes short of the number needed to override, so the Senate never even needed to vote.
The looming closure of Sumner Regional Medical Center stands as a potential disaster for many Sumner County residents.
Tagging clothes for her volunteer post at the Presbyterian Church thrift shop on a summer afternoon, Betty Farley expressed her fear that the closure could have a lasting impact on the community. But for the nearby hospital, the mother would not have been able to deal with her daughter’s treatment that has required both emergent and routine care over the last 15 years. The nearest hospital would now be 30 minutes away. For residents caught in a medical emergency, this could mean a costly ride in an ambulance or worse, not receiving that care in time.
Photos: Alex Thompson
To understand the magnitude of a local hospital closure, you only need turn to nearby Independence, Kansas, which lost its hospital two years ago.
When her son’s finger was severed in a home accident, Rhonda Graven, a resident of Independence and at the time uninsured, was forced to make a drastic decision. She had her son Justin airlifted to Wichita but, when he arrived, doctors there refused to operate on him without a signature from his parents, who were a 90-minute drive away (they could not accompany Justin in the helicopter). The effort proved fruitless; Graven attributes the lapse in time from the accident to surgery as the reason why doctors could not reattach the finger.
“It’s a traumatic thing,” Graven said. “When your son wakes up and he’s 12 years old and you have to tell him they couldn’t attach it, it’s devastating.”
Then came the bills. Graven, who owns a furniture depot in Independence, is still dealing with the fallout more than a decade later. Without insurance, her son’s procedure was billed at nearly $40,000 — more than their combined annual income. After filing a hardship waiver that covered $26,000 of the total, the Gravens paid off the balance on their credit cards. But even those payments were too much to keep up with, and Rhonda Graven’s credit rating has not since recovered.
Photos: Alex Thompson
With more than a fifth of Independence residents living below the poverty level, paying for health insurance quickly falls off the list of priorities. Heath Welton — a cowboy, Army veteran, and physician’s assistant in nearby Coffeyville — knows this too well. He said it costs him $2,000 per year in tax penalties for leaving his family of four uninsured —but that’s cheaper than spending $7,200 a year on insurance
Welton has the luxury of being able to attend to some of his family’s medical needs himself, but many of his neighbors are not so lucky. When he is not working at the clinic, herding cattle, or working on the ranch, he makes house calls for uninsured members of the community, sometimes trading services for chickens and eggs.
In Wellington, the community’s emergency response teams know the financial burden of the hospital closure will go well beyond chickens and eggs, bracing for the impact of increased demand for emergency services.
Sumner County EMS already responds to more than 1300 calls per year, according to EMS Chief Tim Hay, a number that is rising steadily year-to-year. If the local hospital closes, the total time for ambulance trips to Wichita would be two hours — an extended trip time that requires extended staffing. According to a fact sheet prepared by the EMS team laying out contingencies to deal with closing Sumner Regional, EMS Chief Hay estimates that hiring emergency responders, purchasing ambulances, and creating a larger station to accommodate staff would increase annual spending by close to a million dollars.
The cost to Sumner County as a whole will be especially difficult to bear because the closure of the hospital could incur a $6 million hit to the retail economy, according to Stacy Davis.
Photos: Alex Thompson
Wellington residents have consistently voted to tax themselves — 63.6 percent of voters approved a one-cent sales-tax increase in November 2014 — to keep the hospital open. The funds from the tax directly benefit the Sumner Regional Medical Center, but they have not proved to be enough.
For Wellington farmers, who, along with their food processing counterparts make up almost 50 percent of the local economy, skipping town is not an option. “We can’t just pick and up go,” said Bob White, whose family’s wheat farm dates back to 1902. In a late morning drive toward White’s farm this summer, speeding down gravel roads through the sea of Kansas wheat to his farm just outside of Wellington, he mused on the issue of universal access to healthcare. “Most people around here know how much it costs, but they don’t understand the value of it.”
The real problem for Wellington, however, is momentum. The impending closure of Sumner Regional coupled with consistent population decline — meaning even fewer tax-paying residents — could trigger further dislocations, causing further economic woes.
Federal funding can help close the gap in financing for local hospitals that rural communities like Sumner County must contend with. That’s why local leaders in Wellington took such drastic action trying to convince Larry Alley to vote to override Brownback’s veto of expanding Medicaid; the Kansas Hospital Association estimates the state lost nearly $1.8 billion in lost federal funding due to the expansion effort’s failure. In turn, the debate about expanding Medicaid and local hospital closures is percolating into national politics.
In an April special election for Kansas’s 4th Congressional District, the Democrat James Thompson came close to beating the Republican candidate in a district that the GOP — including Donald Trump — routinely wins by 50 or more percentage points. In his bid to run again in 2018, Thompson’s strategy is to have liberal Wichita push him over the top, but he needs to perform decently in surrounding rural areas like Sumner County. He sees a political opportunity in Republicans’ failure to expand Medicaid. In the April special election vote, which came just a week after the failure to override Brownback’s veto of Medicaid expansion, the likely death knell of Sumner Regional, Thompson exceeded expectations in Sumner County, cutting Trump’s 50-point margin in half.
“When I go out to the rural areas now, the things they’re talking about are how these policies are really starting to affect them. The failure to expand Medicaid is hurting rural hospitals in particular,” Thompson told The Intercept. “The people out there realize that. The hospital is the lifeblood of the community.”
Correction: Oct. 1, 2017, 2:56 p.m.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that GKN officials were present at the meeting between Alley and town leaders. They had met with Alley earlier in the day.