Traverse City Record-Eagle

the BIZ

April 9, 2014

Glenn Puit: An ode to rural hospitals

To say northern Michigan has plenty of great amenities is like saying the sky is blue and the grass is green.

It’s a given.

Beautiful lakes, hiking trails, woodlands, farms, open spaces and a vibrant commercial center like downtown Traverse City combine with the region’s great human assets to make this one of the best places on the globe to spend your days.

But it doesn’t mean there isn’t work to do on our economy. In Kalkaska -- a rural northern Michigan community where officials look to revitalize the economy and lower the unemployment rate -- there are a lot of assets on which to capitalize. But perhaps the greatest community commodity in Kalkaska is one you’d probably never know existed if not for the simple blue sign on the highway that points you off the main drag to Kalkaska Memorial Health Center.

Yes, that’s right -- a hospital. It’s not as exciting as a glorious lakefront view or bustling downtown shopping corridor, but Kalkaska Memorial is just as important in a rural county with 11.9 percent unemployment. The hospital has a $30 million annual budget and is the county’s biggest employer. It puts about 350 people to work, helps the local workforce feed their families and provides an anchor for future growth that would seem much more far-fetched if the hospital ceased to exist.

“It’s a beautiful facility,” said new hospital administrator Kevin Rogols. “I built three hospitals in my career, and I wish I would have built this one.”

Kalkaska Memorial flies under the radar for most, but it’s an asset that needs to be protected. One of the keys to doing that is understanding how rural hospitals survive in a world where just understanding your personal health insurance policy can feel like preparing for a calculus exam. Kalkaska Memorial’s survival largely depends on a trio of factors: local financial support provided by townships, adequate reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid and, perhaps most importantly, the hospital’s federal designation as a critical access health care facility in a rural community.

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