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Peru community, hospital workers scrambling in wake of St. Margaret's Health closure

After the temporary closure was announced on Friday, workers and patients are now searching for new jobs and doctors in the tough rural health care environment.

PERU, Ill. — The Peru, Illinois community is facing uncertainty in jobs and health care as St. Margaret's Health prepares for its incoming Jan. 28 closure.

On Friday, Jan. 20, the hospital revealed that operations will be temporarily suspended on Saturday, Jan. 28 as the facility attempts to reinvent itself to help recover from difficulties first inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hospital officials said in a press briefing that their goal is to reopen the facility in the future as a "rural emergency hospital"; a new type of designation that allows hospitals in small, rural areas to open up to outside funding to maintain the availability of critical emergency services.

The REH designation was created in December 2020 in response to the loss of essential health care services in rural areas during the early years of the pandemic as the industry was bombarded with financial and operational challenges. 

Eligible hospitals are now able to receive the designation as of Jan. 1, 2023, but in St. Margaret's case, it still requires regulatory changes from the State of Illinois.

According to St. Margaret's officials, the story behind the creation of REH is exactly what's been happening to them and many other facilities across the country., and specifically noted the high cost of agency-provided nurse staffing, or "travel nurses."

"We're all suffering from the same pressure financially about funding temporary nurses," VP of Community Services Linda Burt said. "Every hospital across the country, not just rural Illinois, across the country is struggling with that very same issue. And that's been brought on by COVID."

It could be the newest entry of hospital shutdowns in the small-town Illinois environment, following the initially-temporary-then-permanent closing of Galesburg Cottage Hospital just one year ago.

As the facility attempts to navigate its future, its employees are being forced to quickly fill the sudden gap in their work.

"I'm just, like, devastated because these people are like family," said Brena Ferguson, who's worked at St. Margaret's for almost ten years. "I'm still numb, still in disbelief. Yeah, I'm angry that they did this to us. We've been here all these years, and we merged and then we're done." 

The surrounding Peru community is also facing uncertainty as they attempt to find doctors, and they're got questions and strong words to share with officials.

"It causes a lot of anxiety. Obviously, people have bills, they have children and families to take care of, and we got a community to take care of, one resident said. "They count on us for health care, and we feel that we let them down."

"What are these people supposed to do?" asked resident Bill Craven. "And they're basically being given nothing. No help, and they're being thrown in the wind and told (to) find a way? These people are gonna have to travel one hour, two hours away, if they're accepted in a hospital in Ottawa or Ponitac or Morris, but there's no guarantee. I feel sorry for them... I don't know what they're going to do." 

Staff and residents are now hoping that the decision will be reversed, and they'll be hosting a rally to make that desire heard on Jan. 28 at 6:45 a.m. in from of St. Margaret's emergency room.

"I always have hope that something will happen," Craven added. "But I have this feeling that the die has been cast."

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