On the road, again

Published 9:03 am Tuesday, June 2, 2015

BELHAVEN – By the end of this year, 283 of America’s rural hospitals will face the greatest challenge to their existence – the very real possibly of closing down.

To draw attention to a life or death situation for some 62 million Americans who rely on rural healthcare, The Walk will begin in Belhaven, North Carolina on June 1 and conclude on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on June 15.

The Walk will be led by a most unlikely pair, conservative GOP Mayor Adam O’Neal of Belhaven and Civil Rights legend Bob Zellner, whose purpose is to keep hope alive in the rural town of Belhaven (pop. 1,687) and other small towns across the nation, as well as to encourage Congress to enact legislation to sustain rural hospitals.

At 9 a.m. on Monday, June 1, O’Neal, Zellner and supporters representing 11 states will leave Belhaven for a two-week, 283-mile walk to Washington, D.C., one mile for every hospital that may be closed, letting people know along the way that possible closures will leave millions in a dangerous and vulnerable position.

Indeed, Belhaven is Ground Zero for the present-day crisis. It was the first rural town in the U.S. to get a hospital under President Truman’s 1947 Hill-Burton Act that established community rural hospitals, and ironically, Belhaven was the first Hill-Burton critical access hospital closed in July 2014.

“All Americans must be made aware of the dire rural health care crisis we face in this country,” said O’Neal. “Our rural hospitals are just as important as any urban medical center. When hospitals close, emergency rooms close and that means needless deaths — our children, family members, veterans, and neighbors. We have to stand up for ourselves and The Walk will get Washington’s and the nation’s attention.”

During The Walk, participants will stay in Plymouth, and Ahoskie in North Carolina, and Courtland, Petersburg, Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Arlington in Virginia, before arriving at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on June 15. Participants will host rallies with the community, as well as meet with local and state officials along the route.

To date, supporters from N.C., S.C., Tx., Ala., Wash., Va., Tenn., Fl., N.Y., Ga., and Calif. will join O’Neal and Zellner with representatives from some 40 states expected at the Capitol on June 1. Also, joining The Walk at the Capitol will be elected officials and prominent dignitaries.

“This is a bipartisan grassroots movement with a single purpose,” O’Neal stated. “Imagine having to drive 80 miles to get to an emergency room on a country road? Or, wasting precious time for an ambulance or helicopter? Sadly, we’ve seen multiple, preventable deaths occur for these very reasons.”

Since its hospital closed in 2014, Belhaven has witnessed several deaths that many say could have been prevented had the hospital remained open. Today, the nearest hospital is 30 miles away. In the neighboring county, where none exists, residents must travel some 80 miles for emergency care.

Belhaven is not alone. In a rural East Texas town, an 18-month old died from choking on a grape. The baby was rushed to the nearby hospital, the only one in the entire county, but it was closed and locked. The next nearest hospital was some 21 miles away, but it was too late.

The possibility of a rural hospital closure is more than a health issue. The National Rural Health Association projects in a 2015 study that 36,000 jobs will be lost if the 283 hospitals are closed. Also, rural communities will lose an estimated $10.6 billion in lost GDP if the hospitals are shuttered.

According to a recent Associated Press report, 50 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, with the pace accelerating. iVantage Health Analytics, a firm that works with hospitals, reports that the 283 rural hospitals vulnerable to shutting down are located in 39 states, and that 35 percent of them are operating at a loss. To date, most of the closures have occurred in the South and Midwest. In fact, nearly 70 percent of those at risk are in states that have declined to expand Medicaid coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act, but some experts are not drawing a cause-and-effect correlation, the AP reported.

“We are going backwards with healthcare in America,” O’Neal stressed. “Hospitals are not like hardware stores; we can’t simply close them and not expect people to be affected. The Walk must start a national debate about the condition of rural hospitals today. This is an American issue, regardless of party or politics. If 283 hospitals close and there are 10 preventable deaths, due to no emergency care services that will almost equal the number of lives lost on 9/11 every year, and every year thereafter. We must demonstrate to lawmakers in D.C. how we the people can cross party lines to work on this vital issue.”

This isn’t the first time that O’Neal and Zellner made their way to DC by foot. From July 14-28 of last year, they took the same trip as the result of the death of 48-year-old Portia Gibbs. She had suffered a heart attack and died after waiting – one-hour, in the back of ambulance, in a high school parking lot – for a medical helicopter to arrive. She could have been at Belhaven hospital in less than 30 minutes, had it not closed just six days earlier.

For details on The Walk, visit: http://thewalknctodc.com