Clarksdale’s only hospital is at 1970 Hospital Drive. The operator is looking to close the hospital.

CLARKSDALE – Almost two months ago, a not-for-profit health system operating a Delta hospital filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, unsure if it would be able to keep the 181-bed Northwest Mississippi Regional Center (Merit Health) open. But on Friday, Coahoma County officials received a notice that the company holding the lease planned to shut the hospital doors in December.

From 2010 to present, 87 rural hospitals across the country closed with most located in the South, data from the North Carolina Rural Health Research program showed. And of that number, Mississippi had five hospital closures.

And now, possibly a sixth closure is near with the Clarksdale hospital’s fate undecided. An Oct. 23 hearing is scheduled to hear an emergency request by the operator for relief – including the option of closing its doors. However, area officials and community leaders are looking at options of their own to keep the county’s only hospital open.

On August 24, Curae Health Inc., a Tennessee-based not-for-profit health system, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Tennessee on behalf of three rural hospitals in Clarksdale, Amory, and Batesville. Curae acquired the leases in 2017 for the three Mississippi hospitals from Community Health Systems, Inc., a publicly traded hospital company that owns, leases, and operates 158 hospitals in 22 states.

Derrell Washington, a Coahoma County supervisor, posted a letter on Facebook stating that employees of the hospital here had received a “WARN notice” – employers with 100 or more employees are required to notify them 60 calendar days in advance of plant closings or mass layoffs.

Paul Pearson, president of the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, said in a phone call with Mississippi Today that “the hospital will not close,” and the board will do everything in its power to keep it open.

The bank that Curae owes wanted to get the ongoing debt off its hands, said Pearson of the Friday notice, and of the three Mississippi hospitals, Clarksdale’s hospital revenue was down the most, but that’s not “a reflection of the services we provide,” he added.

Coahoma County Board of Supervisors, Paul Pearson (left to right), Pat Davis, Derrell Washington, Johnny Newson, and Will Young

“We run a great hospital, we provide great services … And out of all the people we’ve talked to they said that hospital will make money,” said Pearson.

On Monday morning, the board approved the hire of Ridgeland-based Trilogy Healthcare Solutions on an hourly fee for consulting services. Board attorney Tom Ross said in an email that Trilogy would help in determining “the most reasonable course to enable the hospital to continue to provide safe, sustainable health care services for the benefit of the communities served by the hospital.”

Curae said the bankruptcy filing was the result of several issues.

According to HealthLeaders Media, Curae released a statement saying that financial challenges – such as government funding cuts, unfunded care mandates, unexpected expenses related to electronic medical records and a cash crunch that came as vendors demanded payment for outstanding debts – factored into the decision.

“Our hospitals were not immune to these issues and after exhausting other possibilities, the decision was clear that the hospitals could not continue to operate under mounting debt and tightening financial resources,” the statement read.

An expedited hearing is set for Oct. 23 at 2 p.m. on Curae’s emergency motion to authorize the company to either shut down the Clarksdale Hospital, reject all unexpired leases and contracts of Clarksdale, and receive related relief – or, transfer operations of the Clarksdale hospital to a new operator, assume and assign the Coahoma County lease and other unexpired leases and contracts requested by the new operator, and receive related relief.

County leaders said they expect to keep the facility open, adding there are two interested parties ready to take over the lease.

The stakes are high for residents and surrounding communities.

Crystal Wimberly, a Clarksdale native and resident for 29 years who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2015, said if it were not for the hospital, she might not be alive today.

Crystal Wimberly

“I know a lot of people talk really bad about the hospital being crappy, they don’t do this and they don’t that … I have never had a problem with that ER. They saved my life. Had it not been for us having this hospital here and the well equipped ER – and that extends to the nurses and doctors and how well trained they are – I possibly could’ve lost my life at some point,” she said.

“How many people are going to die if this hospital shuts down?”

Before getting resection surgery years ago for her disease, Wimberly would go to the ER every week, she said, because she was in a massive amount of pain with inflammation and swelling.

After being “sick and tired” of being sick, Wimberly finally got the surgery, praising doctors for a successful operation.

But with the hospital’s future at stake, many of those nurses and doctors who helped her may lose their jobs, said Wimberly, as she reflected on how much they “busted their asses off to get through nursing school and get their degree,” she added.

“And now they’re going to lose their jobs?”

The health care industry employs 1,640 people in the Clarksdale community and is the largest employer in Coahoma County, according to Data USA. If the hospital were to close, 484 people would be laid off.

Coahoma County has about 23,000 residents – 80 percent African American. The county’s unemployment rate sits at 7.1 percent, the lowest it has seen in the over 20 years, but still among the highest across the state – ranking in the bottom 10 in the state, according to 2018 Mississippi Labor Market Data.

Based on the list of hospitals in the state, residents would have to travel about 35 miles to Cleveland or make an hour-long drive to Oxford, Greenville, or Greenwood to receive services. 

But for people like Wimberly, driving any distance to get treatment would be an issue.

“I went to the doctor this morning, and my white cell count was threw the roof and I said, ‘Its about to come back and we’re gonna have another problem.’  When that happens and I’m in such severe pain, and I can barely even drive. I won’t be able to drive to Cleveland,” said Wimberly.

“What else am I supposed to do? When it comes down to it, I can’t fathom what other people would do if we lost our hospital. We’re gonna be up a damn creek.”

Having a daughter who is in kindergarten brings even more worry, said Wimberly.

“What if something happens to that kid? Getting five minutes to our hospital versus 30 minutes somewhere else could be a life and death factor for a lot of those families. No one wants to lose their kids. No one wants to lose anybody,” she said.

“I pray to God that somebody picks it up. We’ve got to have our hospital. We’ve (Mississippi) already had five rural hospitals shut down. How is that effecting those communities? We need to take a good look at that because if you look at that and put it on a larger scale, that’s how its gonna be affecting us.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.