MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Since 2020, Pickens County with its more than 20,000 residents has not had a hospital, with the next closest health care facilities being in Mississippi or neighboring Tuscaloosa County.
A bi-partisan effort spearheaded by Reps. A.J. McCampbell, D-Demopolis, Ron Bolton, R-Northport, and Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, aims to remedy that problem, with the three lawmakers organizing a rally Wednesday in front of the Alabama State House in Montgomery.
The Pickens County Medical Center closed its doors for good in March of 2020, with the Pickens County Health Care Authority announcing that the hospital’s finances were no longer sustainable. Beyond the loss of about 200 jobs, the hospital’s closure also left residents around an hour away from the nearest emergency room.
Both McCampbell and Allen had tried to get bills approved by committees on Tuesday to direct $10 million to the Pickens County hospital, though both failed to garner enough support, with opponents arguing that a special session called for redistricting was not the appropriate time for such legislation.
On the House floor on Wednesday ahead of the rally, McCampbell and Bolton – who were joined in the House Chamber gallery by dozens of Pickens County residents – made a plea with lawmakers to consider the dire need for a hospital in Pickens County.
“Right now, if someone falls ill and needs to go to a hospital, whether you go north, south, east or west, it’s a one-hour trip,” McCampbell said.
“We talk about Black and white, rich and poor, we talk about Democrat and Republican… this is a human-being issue. This is not about any politics, so please don’t even think that that’s what this is about; it’s about fairness for all people.”
Standing alongside McCampbell on the House floor, Bolton said that while Pickens County was in dire need of health care, the issue of health care accessibility in rural areas was a statewide issue.
“The bottom line is, we’ve got to start a state-wide movement, and we’re starting it in Pickens County, to get our rural communities emergency health care back,” Bolton said.
‘This coming year, by gosh, this better get done’
In May of 2023, Pickens County resident Grena Prude collapsed just minutes away from the shuttered hospital. Whereas previously Prude would have been taken to an emergency room in a matter of minutes, without immediate emergency care, her health crisis proved fatal.
Prude’s sister, Annie Jackson, joined the 50 or so people gathered outside the State House Wednesday afternoon, and pleaded with lawmakers to do what it took to get the county’s only hospital up and running again.
“On May 10, I get a call to come home because my sister had collapsed; once I get home, I get into Carrollton where my sister is laying flat on her back, they’re doing CPR on her, and she’s literally dead,” Jackson said.
“Had we had a hospital, would she have lived? We don’t know. Had we had one and she got a chance to get there? She would have had a fighting chance.”
The mayor of Carrollton, Mickey Walker, also spoke at the rally, and said that beyond providing life-saving medical care for residents, the hospital had also been a vital source of mental health care treatment for adolescents.
“We have got to get this emergency room open, we’ve got to get this child adolescent care ward open, these kids count on it,” Walker said. “All our senators, representatives, please stand up; we waited one year too long, it should have been done this year, but come this coming year, by gosh, this better get done.”
Bolton, who kept his comments during the rally brief, told Alabama Daily News that he, McCampbell and Allen hope to use their fight to fund the hospital in Pickens County as a jumping-off point for a broader effort to fund health care in rural areas, something Bolton campaigned on ahead of his election.
“Essentially, we don’t have emergency care within 32 miles of us in terms of a hospital, and we’ve got to get our hospital back up,” Bolton said. “We literally have people dying on the street; I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but we’re going to let folks talk about it, it’s really happened.”
Allen said that the three of them plan to introduce a bill to fund Pickens County hospital on Feb. 5, 2024 ahead of next year’s legislative session.