The abrupt decision to close Pinnacle Regional Hospital in Boonville has created a political as well as economic and medical issue for Cooper County residents.

Two politicians who will be on the Cooper County ballot this year — one Republican, one Democratic — issued statements after the announcement Wednesday that painted opposing pictures of why the hospital ended its services.

In his statement, State Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he was "outraged" by the way the company treated its employees, that Pinnacle was not sterilizing surgical tools and refused to pay for federally mandated tests proving the skills of lab technicians.

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services regulators found those problems, Rowden said.

"Despite the best efforts of DHSS to work with Pinnacle to keep the hospital open, the company made the decision not to correct critical violations," Rowden said.

Rowden will be seeking re-election in the 19th Senate District, which covers Boone and Cooper counties.

The hospital's owner, based in Overland Park, Kansas, announced the decision to close about a week after halting surgeries due to regulatory issues with the building's heating and ventilation systems. Pinnacle purchased the hospital, formerly known as Cooper County Memorial Hospital, in late 2018.

The other statement that shows the political lines forming over the closure came from Lindsey Simmons, a Democrat running for the Fourth Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler. Simmons laid the blame on Republicans, including Hartzler.

Hartzler, of Harrisonville, opposes expanding Medicaid in Missouri, Simmons said, and has voted repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act that pays for it.

Hartzler also opposed a bill passed 230-192 in December that would give Medicare the legal authority to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, Simmons noted.

Hartzler has been silent on other measures that would support rural hospitals, Simmons said, such as a bill sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would increase Medicare payments to many rural hospitals.

Pinnacle Regional became the seventh rural Missouri hospital to close in the past five years, Simmons noted.

“Rural hospital access is about saving lives, but it's also about creating healthy communities for our families," she said. "It's about investing in those communities and providing good jobs that help our local economies grow. This issue, like so many others we face, isn't partisan."

Rowden's likely Democratic opponent, former state Rep. Judy Baker of Columbia, agreed with some of Simmons' statements in an interview Friday.

Baker was regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during President Barack Obama's first term. She agreed with Rowden that Pinnacle treated its employees poorly during its final weeks of operation, but the agreement ended there.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government pays 90 percent of the costs for states that provide Medicaid to lower-income working people. If Missouri had taken that deal, she said, Pinnacle Regional and other rural hospitals that have closed might still be open.

"They are all struggling and not just this one," Baker said. "I have been talking about this phenomenon for 10 years."

And while Rowden backed the state health department's position, Baker said the state didn't take into account the issues Pinnacle was facing.

"I do think we had an over-aggressive regulator here who didn't work with the hospital prior to this crisis," she said. "The regulator didn't understand how these hospitals struggle because of so little funding, and the fact that Rowden's statement doesn't also recognize the financial struggles rural hospitals have is tone deaf."

In response, Rowden wrote in a text message that he is convinced the department "provided ample opportunities for Pinnacle to rectify the stated issues."

None of the community leaders he has spoken with have mentioned Medicaid expansion as the cure for the hospital's financial ills, Rowden wrote. He added that he is working with those leaders to keep "some version of the hospital open in the days and weeks to come."

Hartzler spokesman Steve Walsh said she is "deeply saddened" by the closure and that rural communities are suffering because Congress has failed "to address the real needs of all Americans."

The bill on drug costs would impose "strong-arm tactics" to control prices that would lead to less research for cures, Walsh wrote.

Boonville Mayor Ned Beach and Cooper County Presiding Commissioner Don Bargary, in separate interviews, said they wanted to stay out of the political battle while they work on keeping as many medical services available as possible.

"Blame doesn't matter," Bargary said. "The focus needs to be on how to fix it."

rkeller@columbiatribune.com

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