With hospital struggles, Justice says he’ll announce task force to focus on W.Va. rural medicine

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice says he is so concerned about the health of West Virginia’s rural medicine system that he will soon establish a task force.

Justice didn’t mean to make the announcement today but described the task force while answering questions from reporters after a bill signing ceremony at the state Capitol.

He described participation by major players among West Virginia hospital organizations, including WVU Medicine and Charleston Area Medical Center.

He wants to “go together with all the bigger parties and bring them to the table with one thing in mind — and this is going to come from me and it’s going to come in the next few days — some way, somehow we’ve got to solve this rural medicine, rural care dilemma.

“So I’m going to bring them together and form a task force to be able to come up with all the good ideas to solve that because at the end of the day we can’t afford to have hospitals close, not in our rural communities. They’re doing it all over the place, and we’ve got to stop it somehow.”

Several West Virginia hospitals have struggled to survive in recent months.

Last fall, Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling abruptly closed, resulting in hundreds of layoffs.

Williamson Memorial Hospital in Mingo County filed for bankruptcy last fall and announced 20 layoffs last month as part of reorganization.

And Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston announced at the start of this year that it would reorganize through bankruptcy. 

“It’s happening all over the place and everything,” Justice said, “and we’re a total rural community when it really comes down to it in West Virginia. We’ve got to solve rural medicine and rural care for our people in West Virginia. Got to be done now.”

Justice’s desire for a task force came up when a television reporter asked him about concerns over Fairmont Regional Medical Center.

The governor had described concern over Fairmont Regional Medical Center at the end of another press conference a couple of weeks ago. The hospital had 25 layoffs in September, and delegates from the area wrote a letter to the owner urging the hospital remain open.

“We’re on it. We’re doing a lot, a lot of work on that,” Justice said on Wednesday afternoon, describing meetings with other players in West Virginia medical care.

“We absolutely will maintain hospital care and emergency care for those people in Fairmont.”

Jordan Hill

House Health Chairman Jordan Hill, when asked for response to the rural health task force possibility, said he looks forward to hearing more about what the governor plans.

Hill, R-Nicholas, said that meanwhile the House Committee on Health and Human Resources is also focused on efforts to ensure healthcare to rural communities.

“This is a vitally important issue and I am glad to hear the governor is planning to focus more attention to it. As someone who has always worked in rural hospitals, I know all too well the struggles we face to even keep our doors open in some locations,” Hill stated.

“West Virginians who carry commercial insurance continue to leave the state or they are going on Medicaid. The economics of that just does not work and some hospitals cannot compete.”

The governor has established task forces on other issues in the past.

The PEIA Task Force was assigned to examine how to cope with rising insurance costs for West Virginia public employees. There were public hearings all over the state, but the governor stepped in dedicate $100 million to shore up the insurance program.

The PEIA Task Force technically remains formed but hasn’t met since the start of last year.

Another task force, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education, was formed to examine the financial strains on West Virginia colleges.

A series of meetings wound up mostly as turf battles and no recommendations seemed to go forward.

But on Wednesday afternoon, the governor said he would still like to gather West Virginia’s best minds on healthcare to figure out strategies.

“I don’t know any other way to do it,” Justice said, describing participation by WVU Medicine, Charleston Area Medical Center, Cabell Huntington and Mon Health Center.

“You’ve got other players, and we’ll bring those players into the fold. But those four players have got the expertise and the smarts to be able to solve this.”

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