A study last year sponsored by the National Rural Health Association found that 673 rural hospitals were at a risk of closing, and 210 are considered to be at an extreme risk for closing.

Mercy Hospital Washington was not on either list. It is not exactly a rural hospital. Maybe it should be called an outer suburban hospital because of being officially in metro St. Louis. It is part of the Mercy System that serves people in six states and is in what Mercy calls its eastern community of health care facilities in Missouri.

With being just 45 or 50 minutes away, and in much shorter time by helicopter ambulance, from Mercy Hospital St. Louis, there is excellent backup if needed.

When the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, who had been operating the hospital since it opened in 1926, departed in 1969, the hospital was turned over to the board that had been serving in an advisory capacity. With the transfer of ownership to the board, it became a governing board. The immediate challenge was to plan for a new hospital, and raise funds to build it. The board also hired an administrative team, the Sisters of the Precious Blood, out of Wichita, Kan., to  handle the day-to-day operations.

The early 1970s was a period of fundraising and making plans for the new hospital on property owned by the board across Highway 47. It became evident after the new hospital was under construction that stronger administration was needed. This was especially felt by several board members, who were spending too much of their time in assisting in hospital operations. The idea was hatched to merge with a larger hospital to the east.

Three hospitals were contacted, meetings were held with each, and St. John’s Mercy (now just Mercy St. Louis) was selected as a partner. Negotiations were held and St. John’s acquired St. Francis in early 1976 before the new hospital was completed. St. John’s took over as the construction manager and lost time was made up.  St. John’s assumed the debt of St. Francis. About $1 million was raised in gifts to St. Francis for the $12 million project. 

St. Francis Hospital did not have financial problems and the merger was not sought for that reason. The main reason was to provide better health care for people in this area, and to move forward in that regard quicker with a larger hospital, which would provide experienced and professional leadership in addition to giving the smaller hospital medical backup. The merger was announced in January 1976, and patients were moved into the new facility in late July 1976. At the time of the merger, construction was nearly six months behind the July 1, 1976, move-in schedule. St John’s had the “know-how and power” to make up for lost time.

St. John’s immediately poured about $5 million into St. Francis to convert the old hospital into a doctors’ office building. St. Francis didn’t have the money to do that, and the board really didn’t know what to do with the older facility. The St. Francis governing board became an advisory board again after the merger.

The Mercy Sisters made a tremendous commitment to this area by assuming ownership of St. Francis Hospital, and over the years Mercy has invested heavily in the hospital here. Certainly, the goal to provide improved health care has been reached. The merger has been a success.

We remember the front page story in the old St. Louis Globe-Democrat on the merger. The newspaper predicted other mergers in the health care field in the future. That has happened.

Rural hospitals today that are failing should try to do what St. Francis did in 1976 — merge with a larger system. The problem in many areas is the distance of the rural facility from a larger hospital.