After the only hospital in town closed, a North Carolina city directs its ire at politicians

WILLIAMSTON, N.C. (AP) — Weeds have punctured through the vacant parking lot of Martin General Hospital’s emergency room. A makeshift blue tarp covering the hospital’s sign is worn down from flapping in the wind. The hospital doors are locked, many in this county of 22,000 fear permanently.

Some residents worry the hospital’s sudden closure last August could cost them their life.

“I know we all have to die, but it seems like since the hospital closed, there’s a lot more people dying,” Linda Gibson, a lifelong resident of Williamston, North Carolina, said on a recent afternoon while preparing snacks for children in a nearby elementary school kitchen.

Linda Gibson poses on the porch of her home in Williamston, N.C., on Thursday, April 11, 2024. The minster and school volunteer says people live in fear since their local hospital closed last summer. (AP Photo/ Allen G. Breed)

More than 100 hospitals have downsized services or closed altogether over the past decade in rural communities like Williamston, where people openly wonder if they’d survive the 25-minute ambulance ride to the nearest hospital if they were in a serious car crash.

When Quorum Health shut down Martin County’s 43-bed hospital, citing “financial challenges related to declining population and utilization trends,” residents here didn’t just lose a sense of security. They lost trust, too, in the leaders they elected to make their town a better place to live.

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People like 73-year-old Bobby Woolard say they don’t believe any politicians – from the local county commissioners to the presidential candidates who will pass through this swing state with big campaign promises in the coming months – care enough to help them fix the problem.

“If you’re critically ill, there’s no help for you here,” Woolard said on a sunny April afternoon while trimming his neighbor’s hedges. “Nobody seems to care. You got a building sitting there empty and nobody seems to care.”

Capt. Kenny Warren holds the overdose drug naloxone in an ambulance at the Williamston, N.C., Fire and Rescue Squad on Thursday, April 11, 2024. Warren says run times have doubled since the local hospital closed last August. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

TROUBLE FOR BIDEN’S HEALTH CARE CAMPAIGN? The sentiment in this sharply polarized and segregated eastern North Carolina county could hint at trouble for President Joe Biden, who has made health care a key part of his reelection campaign against Republican rival Donald Trump.

His TV campaign ads hone in on Trump’s promises to diminish the Affordable Care Act. On social media, Biden regularly reminds followers of the law he signed that caps the cost of insulin. And in North Carolina, the campaign is narrowly focused on promoting Democrats’ successful efforts to expand Medicaid , which will extend nearly-free government health insurance to thousands of people and reduce the indigent population for hospitals.

Biden and Trump are fiercely competing for the state, which also features the most prominent governor’s race of the year. Martin County, where Williamston is located, voted for Trump in 2020.

“Health care is on the ballot this year, and voters will remember that when they reject Donald Trump in November,” said Dory MacMillan, the Biden campaign’s North Carolina communications director.

But Biden’s achievements might not be enough for crucial voters living in towns like this one in North Carolina, where people have a hard time just getting emergency care when they need it.

Nationally, emergency room wait times have ballooned, with the average emergency room visit taking nearly three hours last year, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Health care systems are also grappling with a health care worker shortage that worsened after burned-out employees emerged from the pandemic.

Those problems are particularly pronounced in rural communities, where more than 68 hospitals have closed in the last decade. The closures slowed down during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the federal government doled out billions of dollars in extra funds to hospitals. But with that money spent, hospital closures might tick up again, said George Pink, the deputy director of the University of North Carolina’s Sheps Center’s Rural Health Research Program.

A garbage bag hangs from a hospital sign along U.S. 17 in Williamston, N.C., on Thursday, April 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

Often, it’s emergency room care that residents miss the most, Pink said.

“If you’re having a heart attack, if you’re having a stroke, if you’re giving birth, all those are the kinds of life events where you need access to emergency care quickly and properly,” Pink said. “Those communities that have lost their rural hospitals, they don’t have that.”

A SYSTEM ‘AT RISK’ Months before Williamston’s hospital closed, an outside consultant sent a dire warning about emergency care in the county.

The county’s volunteer first responder system was ineffective and long response times that stretched past 15 minutes in some areas were putting “lives at risk,” the consultant told the county’s commissioners last April.

The system was “in desperate need for vision, direction, guidance, command and control, and additional financial support,” the consultant advised the county, according to meeting minutes.

The vacant Martin County General Hospital sits abandoned behind a chain since being closed since being closed in August of 2023 in Williamston, N.C., Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

The sign for the vacant Martin County General Hospital sits under a blue tarp since being closed in August of 2023 in Williamston, N.C., Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

Since Martin General Hospital shut down, things have only gotten worse.

Longer drives to hospitals outside of the county mean ambulances and their crews are tied up for hours sometimes on a run, said Capt. Kenny Warren of the Williamston Fire and Rescue.

“A call that used to take us 20 to 30 minutes is now taking an hour to two hours, depending on where we’ve got to transport to,” Warren said. He added that the agency is staffed with emergency medical technicians, but not paramedics who are trained to provide more advanced care to patients in emergencies.

Warren, however, said he doesn’t think anyone has died as a result.

“Most of the outcomes probably would have been the same anyway,” he said.

In December, first responders arrived on a Williamston street within three minutes of receiving 911 calls that several shots had been fired and a young man might be dead.

They tried unsuccessfully to get a medical helicopter to transport the 21-year-old gunshot victim. The closest option was a six-bed hospital, a 21-minute ambulance ride away. All told, it would take 34 minutes from the time of the 911 call to get him there, according to police dispatch logs. He was transferred from that hospital to a higher-level trauma center where he died a few days later.

The scene of the shooting was just four minutes away from Martin General Hospital’s site.

‘DO YOU REALLY CARE?’

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