JAMESTOWN, Tenn. (WTVF) — Standing in front of the only hospital in Fentress County, Joanne Martin can barely stand to look at the Emergency Room where she dedicated nearly two decades of her life.
"I love my job," Joanne said as her shoulder length white hair was caught by the breeze.
Joanne was fired from Jamestown Regional Medical Center earlier this year after she said she complained that her tax return wasn't being process because witholdings hadn't been sent to the IRS. A claim substantiated last week after the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services said they were cutting off payments to the rural Tennessee hospital after it racked up more than $4 million in unpaid bills and failed to deposit employee's Social Security witholdings.
"This community needs this hospital, desperately. If it closes, people are going to die and that's just not right," she added.
Jamestown Regional is the only hospital in Fentress County. It's also one of the largest employers in the area, in which the median household income hovers around $20,000, far below the national poverty line.
County officials estimate nearly 150 doctors, nurses and other staff members are employed at Jamestown Regional, which is owned by Rennova Health. A number though that has likely declined after more than a dozen people were laid off on Friday.
For County Executive Jimmy Johnson, the prospect of likely losing the hospital is a devastating reality.
"We are stuck and there's nothing Fentress County government can do about it. The trickle down effect of losing a hospital is devastating," he said sitting inside his office Monday.
While hospital officials have not explicitly said Jamestown Regional is closing, most healthcare experts say losing Medicare funding is essentially a "death sentence," especially in rural community where most patients have either Medicare or Medicaid as part of their insurance coverage.
The hospital is still open, but in perhaps the first of what could be a deadly blow for Fentress County, the Emergency Room is no longer accepting patients who show up via ambulance. Meaning, county EMT's are having to transport patients to the next closets hospital in Crossville, nearly 45 minutes away.
"We have become the Emergency Room for the county," says Micah Dunford who serves at Director of Ambulance Services for Fentress County.
Dunford's biggest concern is for patients who need critical care immediately.
"It put the patients further out from receiving the final care they need," he added.
In a brief interview though, Jamestown Regional's new CEO Michael Alexander said his hope is to keep the hospital running. Monday was Alexander's first day at the helm of the economically troubled facility.
"Our hope and our desire is to keep the hospital open. I wouldn't have showed up today if I didn't think that was possible," he said.