One company is flipping abandoned hospitals in rural communities

As rural hospitals close, companies look to renovate, reopen these facilities
Posted at 12:28 PM, Sep 06, 2022

With fresh paint on the walls, new equipment, and wiring, this hospital in western Tennessee is ready to provide care again.

“In our first phase, what we’re doing is opening the emergency department, the first 9 medical surgical bed," said Kyle Kopec, the chief compliance officer and vice president for government affairs for Braden Health. "And then, pharmacy and imaging."

Over the past couple of years, Kopec and the rest of the team at Braden Health have worked to reopen this once-abandoned hospital.

It involved removing mold, bringing things up to code, and a number of other tasks.

“The roof was damaged. There were roof leaks everywhere throughout the building,” Terry Stewart, the facilities manager and project construction coordinator for Braden Health over Tennessee Projects, said.

The building sat empty for nearly eight years. Braden Health purchased it back in October 2020.

“We spent about $10 million or so to rebuild it,” Kopec said.

Despite all the construction and work, there’s still more to do.

“This used to be the surgical wing. It was last used in the '70s with the exception, I think, since then they filmed a few horror movies in here,” he said. “It really looks a lot like most rural hospitals we find that are closed and abandoned.”

Research out of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research shows 139 rural hospitals have closed since 2010.

Another study from the Chartis Center for Rural Health analyzed 1,844 rural hospitals and found that 453, or about 1 in 4, are vulnerable to closure based on performance levels.

“There's a need. It's unmet. And we know how to help,” Kopec said.

Michael Banks, who is now the Haywood County Community Hospital’s CEO, watched as the former hospital here shut down in 2014.

“Financially, it hit us,” he said. ”We also saw a decline in the overall health of the community as well.”

Not having certain health services nearby also impacted taxpayers, he explained.

“Our ambulance service is a county-owned ambulance service. We ended up having to put two new crews and a new ambulance on because they couldn't bring patients here. They had to take them to Jackson, which is a 30-mile drive,” Banks said. “That ended up costing the taxpayers about $800,000 a year.”

“I've lived here all my life,” William Rawls, the mayor of the City of Brownsville, said. “We just thought, this is done. We won't have rural health care, acute health care in our community ever again.”

“Having this hospital back is life-changing,” Rawls said.

It’s a narrative seen all too often in rural communities that lose access to nearby healthcare.

“Your lower economic rural areas have really been affected disproportionately,” Banks said.

This is one of a handful of hospitals Braden Health has bought and rebuilt. They started this process in 2020 and take profits from their other hospitals to buy and rebuild more.

“Right now, you see a little bit of a trend and it’s sort of a mixed bag,” Kopec said, addressing a question about whether or not he’s seeing companies gear in this direction of buying up closed hospitals. “It’s a process. We’re here to help. And as we open the facility, we’re hopeful to win community support back, but it will take time.”

The team hopes this space will be somewhere the community can trust with some of the same staples, like hand print tiles at the front of the hospital, the locals have come to recognize.

“We know there's hundreds of hospitals and thousands of communities that are in need,” Kopec said. “We’re going to look at the hospitals that are closing and see where we can help.”

The Haywood County Community Hospital passed the state inspection at the end of August, which makes the facility a licensed hospital.