John Presley has every piece of equipment he needs to save lives, the pharmacy inside the hospital he owns is fully stocked and ready to go, and yet Cumber River Hospitals in Celina, Tennessee sits empty. Promised state and federal aid has gone elsewhere leaving this rural community with no emergency room.
The 52-year-old bought Cumberland River Hospital two years ago. He was briefly able to open it last year, before having to close. As COVID-19 cases in this county of 7,600 people surged during the fall, the only emergency room within a 90-mile radius was gone.
"It is insane. People are having to travel an hour and a half to get healthcare. You see that in third world countries; it should not be happening here in the United States," Presley said sitting inside the shuttered ER.
Presley is still waiting on nearly $2 million in reimbursements from insurance companies for the brief period of time he was able to open in 2020. CARES Act Money allocated by the federal government, meant to help save hospitals like this one, went elsewhere in the state of Tennessee.
"It was very discouraging because we had worked intently to get the facility open," Presley added.
So, here sits Cumberland River Hospital, silent and empty, all in the middle of a pandemic.
"There’s no doubt in my mind people ended up dying that may not have had to have died because of lack of access to healthcare in rural communities," he added.
The outlook for America's rural hospitals is not much better this year. By some estimates, hospitals could still be looking at $53 billion in lost revenue for 2021.
Brock Slabach with the National Rural Health Association is worried about the ripple effects ER closures are having on the communities they serve.
"We’re going to see a lot of closures. I think the pandemic is going to ravage a lot of rural facilities," Slabach said.
Last year was a record year for rural hospital closures in America. An estimated 20 shuttered their doors during the pandemic. A staggering 137 emergency rooms have closed since 2010, and most have been in states that haven’t expanded Medicaid.
Presley's expenses are running him around $12,000 a month. He's drained every ounce of his personal savings. So, to keep from foreclosure, he's started renting the hospital out to movie production crews.
"We are filming movies in a fully-functioning hospital that should be saving lives," Presley said.
When hospitals across America are forced to become movie sets to stay alive, people Presley can't help but wonder how the script for a horror film somehow became a real-life nightmare.
"We just need the federal government to step in and say, 'We need to reopen these facilities.'"