Six public rural hospitals are on life support, according to an analysis the state auditor published Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters in his office, Auditor Stacey Pickering said his office examined the profitability, debt loads, liquidity and quality of buildings and assigned a score to 19 public rural hospitals, which account for nearly 17 percent of all hospitals. Of the six that are in poor condition, three are located in the Delta: North Sunflower Medical Center, Greenwood Leflore Hospital and Tallahatchie General Hospital.

“We’re talking about some of the poorest of the poor in Mississippi rely on their community owned public hospitals,” Pickering said.

By contrast, five Mississippi public rural hospitals received good or excellent scores. Pickering said it’s important for these hospitals to be in good financial health because the health-care access is limited in rural areas and hospitals are often economic drivers for the communities they serve.

Voters in Oktibbeha County voted down a ballot measure this fall to sell their community owned hospital; after the vote, county officials endorsed the idea of hiring a firm to manage the hospital.

Since 2010, five rural hospitals have closed in the state. When hospitals close, people have to travel farther to receive treatment while the jobs that disappear can hurt local property values and shrink the tax base.

The Legislature’s cuts to the Medicaid program have exacerbated hospitals’ cash flow problems, Pickering said. In the most recent legislative budget recommendation, most agencies, including Medicaid, would receive a cut.

The auditor’s report recommended that the Legislature consider providing more funding for these hospitals, including legislation that failed in the 2017 session that would have allowed hospitals to apply for more grants.

“We cannot stick our head in the sand and pretend like it’s going to be fixed overnight,” Pickering said.

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.