LEE COUNTY, Va. - 45 days after Wellmont Health Systems closed Lee Regional Medical Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia, members and officials from Lee County met at the Lee Theatre to discuss how they can bring back emergency medical services to the county.
Jill Carson of the Pennington Gap Industrial Development Authority or IDA helped plan Saturday's forum because the community wasn't sure what would happen after the closing. "The whole idea was to bring together our local officials, our state and federal folks to let us know where we were. What we had left to do, what were the realistic timeframes," said Jill Carson.
About 200 residents came out to get answers from their politicians.
According to the IDA, before the county can began considering their options they must obtain a certificate of need from the Virginia senate. That's something State Senator Bill Carrico said he'd work to accomplish, but that process could take 12 month to 24 months.
Judy Ridings, a former nurse at the hospital, tells News 5 that not having a hospital now and not getting one for two years could cost people their lives. "The county needs a hospital to survive. It's older folks, it's younger folk we all need the emergency care," said Judy Ridings.
Getting to the nearest hospital, which is in Big Stone Gap, now takes 30 minutes. It has created an even greater burden for the Lee County Rescue Squad. "Our fuel bill has increased at least 100 percent, in some cases 200 percent. Our transport times have increased. We're looking at least a couple of hours for some calls," said Josh Rivers.
Carson tells News 5 they are committed to bringing a hospital to the area and they are in talks with several health care providers.
She believes that if the hospital doesn't return, it could make the county's high unemployment and poverty rates even worse. "It's like a domino effect of things that are happening as a result of this," said Carson.
At the meeting we learned, the Appalachian Regional Hospital in Harlan, Kentucky plans to build an urgent care clinic in the next couple of weeks in Lee County to help with emergency care.