Nearly two-thirds of Georgia’s counties fall below the statewide average number of nurses, physician assistants, total doctors and primary care doctors per 100,000 residents.
In many rural counties, shortages reflect financial ills in local health care systems, even hospital closures. Community health care cornerstones like Charlton Memorial Hospital closed across the state in recent years. Now people who used to rely on Charlton Memorial travel 35 to 50 miles away for hospital services.
“The loss of Charlton Memorial has made me seriously reconsider coming back home to live and work and has made me concerned that my aging parents will not be able to receive quick lifesaving care in the community,” said Andy Smith, who now lives and works in Florida.
This month’s Georgia Budget and Policy Institute report featuring county-level data shows Charlton County’s health care provider shortage is among the most severe in the state. The county is 65 percent below the statewide average for nurses per 100,000 residents and more than 75 percent below the statewide average for total doctors, physician assistants, and primary care physicians per 100,000 residents.
Many of the other counties that fall well below the state average in most of the provider categories are also rural counties that lost a hospital due to financial struggles in recent years. This includes Hart County Hospital, Calhoun Memorial Hospital and most recently North Georgia Medical Center in Gilmer County. According to a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, at least nine hospitals closed since 2001 and “many others are considered ‘financially fragile.’” Struggling rural hospitals face the threat of closure and they also cope with greater challenges to attracting health care professionals.
State policymakers can address this challenge through increased investment in loan repayment programs for providers working in rural areas and expanding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners. Expanding Medicaid income eligibility to close the health insurance gap for hundreds of thousands of Georgians is also a key part of a multipronged effort to reverse the state’s worsening health care crisis.
Provider capacity maps in the new GBPI report reveal rural counties are not the only ones to experience health care provider shortages. Suburban Atlanta’ counties Forsyth, Cherokee, Clayton, Paulding, and Barrow also fell below the statewide provider-to-resident ratio for four types of health care providers. Meanwhile, rapid population growth in the Atlanta suburbs is creating greater demand for additional providers. Even in urban counties like Fulton, more than 200,000 residents live in an underserved area or belong to an underserved population that lacks health care access due to economic challenges or differences in language or culture.
This county-level provider capacity data provides a unique and detailed snapshot of where the shortages lie and the special challenges of specific counties in all parts of the state. Policymakers can use this knowledge to implement effective statewide solutions. Covering hundreds of thousands of Georgians through increased Medicaid eligibility boosts the number of insured patients, reduces uncompensated care costs and infuses the health care system with new dollars to hire more providers.
When you review our interactive county-level maps, please keep in mind that people in Charlton County don’t live on an island. Look at the surrounding counties that cope with provider shortages and think how far someone has to drive to find a particular type of provider. This problem is spotlighted in a recent Gainesville Times story that shows a regional shortage of mental health providers means someone in need of that treatment can’t necessarily look to a neighboring county for help.
The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is close to offering recommendations to address the state’s health crisis and state lawmakers are expressing more interest than ever in doing what it takes to stanch the flow of red ink at community hospitals.
Help is needed immediately and a concerted effort is required to prevent more communities like those in Charlton County from losing the local hospital to get timely treatment and visit sick loved ones.