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story.lead_photo.caption Carrie Jones

WHEELING, W.Va. -- Carrie Jones is looking for work for the first time in two decades. She said she's even more worried about what will happen to her psychiatric patients.

"Where are they going to go?" Jones said. "We're honestly like their family."

Jones is among nearly 1,100 employees being laid off at Ohio Valley Medical Center in Wheeling and its sister facility, East Ohio Regional Hospital in nearby Martins Ferry, Ohio.

The layoffs are the latest blow to a region on the edge of the Rust Belt that hasn't fully benefited from the economic recovery that President Donald Trump -- who attended a private campaign fundraiser in Wheeling in July -- has touted. The area had managed to hang on after steel mills and other manufacturing plants closed, in part by forging a new identity as a health care hub.

But after two years of ownership, the Irvine, Calif.-based Alecto Healthcare Services announced that both hospitals will close by next month. The company cited several factors, including losses of more than $37 million since taking over, increasing facility-improvement needs, and the lack of a potential partner or buyer, including a cross-town hospital.

Acute and emergency admissions were suspended Wednesday night at Ohio Valley Medical Center, where workers held a candlelight vigil just before midnight.

The Appalachian hilltop region's economy has steadily eroded in recent decades, a trend forecasters expect to continue. Steel mills farther north were closed long ago. Aluminum and other manufacturing plants in Ohio left as well.

As the jobs went, so have residents. The population in the three-county area on either side of the Ohio River has fallen steadily since the early 1980s, including a 5.3% drop from 2010 to 2018.

Powered by a natural gas fracking boom, employment rebounded after the recession. But a 2018 report by West Virginia University researchers said the area would need "a significant positive economic shock" to halt long-term declines.

A block away from the medical center, Wheeling's 166-year-old Centre Market District is filled with restaurants and shops that cater to hospital workers and patients' families. Some business owners said they will be affected by the hospital closing but that they are prepared to handle it.

A few miles east, Wheeling Hospital is one of the state's top 10 private employers. In Ohio, three of Belmont County's top employers are hospitals.

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Allison Adler said the department's staff and Gov. Jim Justice have "been striving to ensure that as OVMC leaves the Wheeling market, there is no lapse of quality care for those patients transferred to other facilities, and that services provided by OVMC remain available in the community."

Calls to the hospital and the parent company about the welfare of those patients weren't returned.

Jones, an activity therapist in the Ohio Valley Medical Center's psychiatric unit, said the hospital's 68-bed acute psychiatric facility is the only one of its type within 75 miles.

"It takes them a long time to trust people," Jones said. "These are people, the doors have been shut on their faces time after time after time. They know they can come to us. Now it's just one more door."

A Section on 09/09/2019

Print Headline: Hard-hit area faces hospitals' closures

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