The announced closure of Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital near Russell, Kentucky, later this year is causing ripples from there to Huntington and beyond.
The immediate question for people in Ironton, Ohio, is what it means to lose a hospital close by. For Huntington, it’s a question of whether this city’s health care infrastructure that filled a gap there before can or will do so again.
On Tuesday, members of the Lawrence County Board of Commissioners said they want to meet with officials from St. Mary’s Medical Center to discuss possibly increasing services at that hospital’s medical center in Ironton in light of Bellefonte’s closing. It’s an understandable request. Ironton has been without a hospital since January 2001, when River Valley Health System closed. St. Mary’s opened an emergency and outpatient center at the Ohio 141 exit of U.S. 52, near the Ohio University Southern Campus, in July 2012.
Les Boggs, a former Lawrence County commissioner, said St. Mary’s officials talked in 2012 about the possibility of expanding services in Ironton. At that time, St. Mary’s officials said expansion was a possibility in eight to 10 years, Boggs said. That puts the possibility of expansion in the present time.
To say a lot has happened in the health care industry locally since then is an understatement. What had been a market competition among hospitals in Huntington, Ashland and Portsmouth, Ohio, has cooled. St. Mary’s has been acquired by Cabell Huntington Hospital and is now part of the Mountain Health Network. And, of course, there was the unexpected announced closure of Our Lady of Bellefonte.
While a full-service hospital in town is not necessarily a critical need for Ironton, one would help. There is the region around Ironton — Coal Grove, Hanging Rock, Pedro, Kitts Hill and small rural communities whose names have been lost — to consider, also.
Bellefonte’s closure will have an impact on local emergency medical services, too, said Mac Yates, director of the county’s ambulance district. In the past two years, Lawrence County ambulances made about 3,000 runs to Bellefonte, he said. The next closest hospitals to Ironton would be King’s Daughters in Ashland, Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth and the two hospitals in Huntington.
St. Mary’s has yet to comment on whether it’s interested in expanding its Ironton operation in response to the Bellefonte closing. Before St. Mary’s or any other hospital could undertake such a project, it would have to make sure the financial side of things works out.
One thing is certain: There’s an available work force to staff an expanded Ironton operation. More than 1,000 people are expected to lose their jobs when Bellefonte closes in September. About 400 of those employees live in Lawrence County, said Ralph Kline, assistant executive director of the Ironton Lawrence County Community Action Organization.
Ironton needs something to replace what’s being lost at Bellefonte. St. Mary’s and Mountain Health would be wise to consider what they can do to help Ironton. The same goes for any other regional health provider.
The health care industry in the Tri-State is consolidating. Existing providers must ensure no community is left with inadequate health care resources.