Here’s a scary statistic: More hospitals are closing their doors in rural Texas communities than anywhere else in the country.
This is not new information. But in the era of COVID-19, its significance is magnified by a spike in infections and hospital overcrowding. Just when we need more hospital beds and high-quality medical care, Texans have fewer options.
Since 2010, 17 of the nation’s 100-plus rural hospital closures have occurred here in our state. When a hospital or medical provider closes its doors, it creates a ripple effect that can stretch far beyond the community. Investigators at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have studied this ripple effect, examining how hospital closures in the United States affected medical services. They found rural hospital closures resulted in up to 1% of the population no longer being able to access a hospital within 15 minutes, and that a third of the closed hospitals were more than 20 miles from the nearest remaining facility — a time frame that could be devastating in medical emergencies such as heart attack, stroke or traumatic injury.
There are more COVID-19-related hospitalizations in Texas than ever before, and our state has more cases than any other. We need every player on the field, and we need policy solutions that create more resources for Texans.
Today, there are more than 200 freestanding emergency centers (FECs) with 1,500 beds in Texas that could help fill the gaps in our rural communities as well as urban and suburban areas throughout the state where critical access to medical care is needed as hospitals fill up.
Freestanding Emergency Centers are stand-alone emergency rooms that are open 24/7, fully equipped for all medical emergencies and closely regulated by the state. They are often closer than hospitals to many Texans and have consistently lower wait times than hospital emergency rooms. But currently, FECs are an underused resource in the Texas pandemic response plan, capable of much more than providing emergency care alone.
Freestanding Emergency Centers are not permitted to provide non-emergency care such as out-patient services, even though they possess all the resources to do so. In other words, if you have an emergency like a broken arm or even have a heart attack — we’ve got you. But if you simply need out-patient lab work or an X-ray, our members could do that, if they were allowed.
FECs are already equipped for out-patient services like testing, infection assessment, pharmacy, lab work, radiology and other vital services. In these times, the ability for Freestanding Emergency Centers to offer higher quality care at a lower cost would be a huge benefit to Texans.
The need for Freestanding Emergency Centers to offer non-emergent care will be even greater when a COVID-19 vaccine is approved. FECs’ 24/7 schedule, accessibility and short wait times will be vital in administering vaccines.
In a time when every doctor, nurse, healthcare provider and facility is needed in our state more than ever, FECs are ready. Our message to the State is “put me in coach.”
The Texas Association of Freestanding Emergency Centers (TAFEC) is a member-based association representing more than 120 freestanding emergency centers in Texas.