Poor Mississippi county celebrates rural hospital reopening

MARKS, Miss. (AP) — For the past five years, anybody who broke a leg, had a heart attack or came down with appendicitis in rural Quitman County, Mississippi, had to be driven at least 30 minutes to the east or west to get the kind of medical attention they needed.

The only hospital in Quitman County and the tiny town of Marks closed Oct. 31, 2016. Like many medical facilities in poor parts of America, Quitman County Hospital struggled to remain solvent as rural jobs dried up and people moved to larger communities.

Marks resident Pearl Watts said people without cars might pay their neighbors $20 each direction to get rides to or from hospitals. Traffic can easily slow to a crawl because of agricultural machinery or leisurely drivers on the two-lane highways that go past cotton and soybean fields in the Delta flatlands.

“If I got ill over the night, I might not be able to get 17 miles or 20 miles to the next hospital,” said Watts, who has multiple sclerosis.

So, it was a big deal when the local hospital reopened this month, this time under a new name. Quitman Community Hospital has eight beds and a 24/7 emergency room.

A couple hundred people gathered on the lawn outside the hospital Friday to celebrate the reopening.

“For this to reopen, it’s a breath of fresh air,” said Democratic state Sen. Robert Jackson of Marks.

Standing in the shade of a magnolia tree on the crisp fall day, the Quitman County Middle School Choir sang a gospel tune: “Hold on just a little while longer. Everything will be all right.”

Quitman County has about 6,800 residents, down from about 8,200 in 2010. Its poverty rate is about 35%, more than three times the U.S. poverty rate of 11%.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, whose expansive district includes Quitman County, said local residents had done the impossible by bringing health care back to the community. He also noted that the hospital’s address is, appropriately, on Getwell Road.

“You now start the process of growing Quitman County,” he said.

Thompson also criticized Republican Gov. Tate Reeves, who was not present. Reeves has steadfastly opposed expanding Medicaid to the working poor, making Mississippi one of 12 states that have not taken advantage of that option under the health care overhaul signed into law by then-President Barack Obama in 2010.

“Medicaid expansion dollars are available, should the governor of this state choose — and you could get millions of dollars invested at no cost, if the governor would just accept the money,” Thompson said.

Republican U.S. Roger Wicker said hospitals are vital to small towns. Referring to the middle school choir, Wicker said: “We want our best and our brightest, which were represented on that podium, to stay here in Mississippi and join the American dream in Quitman County, Mississippi, and in small-town Mississippi.”

Mississippi hospitals must have a “certificate of need” approved by the state Board of Health. The certificate for the old Quitman County hospital was dormant, and it was set to expire at the end of October. With a sense of urgency, Quitman County elected officials reached out in early September to businesspeople who operate a hospital in next-door Panola County to see if they could help revive the hospital in their community.

The Board of Health extended the certificate of need, a local bank extended a loan and the deal clicked together, said Quentin Whitwell, CEO and administrator of the newly opened hospital.

“Quitman County; Marks, Mississippi; the Mississippi Delta; the state of Mississippi — we can do great things,” Whitwell said Friday. “And I promise you this, Congressman Thompson: I won’t turn down a single federal dollar.”

Robert Gaither, a 62-year-old military veteran, sat in a wheelchair under pecan trees across the street from the hospital and watched as people gathered for the celebration. He said he had previously been taken by ambulance to the hospital in Panola County, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) to the east. Asked about having a hospital in his own community, Gaither said: “It’s a blessing.”

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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