The nonprofit that holds the deed to the beleaguered former Pungo District Hospital in Belhaven will tear the building down rather than allow a community-based group to try to reopen it as a critical care center.
Pantego Creek LLC got a permit on Nov. 6 to demolish the historic building, and those who hoped to reopen it say they fear the heavy machinery will roll in as early as Monday.
“If they tear it town, that will be the end of it,” said Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal, who has lead a fight – bitter at times – to reopen the hospital and its emergency room. O’Neal believes the community group that owns the hospital is being pressured by Vidant Health to tear it town, so that it can’t reopen and become a competitor to Vidant’s other hospitals in Eastern North Carolina.
Vidant took over the hospital, which had served the community since 1949, in 2011 at the request of the community board that oversaw the hospital’s operations, Pantego Creek LLC. The hospital was struggling financially, largely because so many of its patients could not pay for services and Medicaid and Medicare did not reimburse at a rate high enough to sustain operations. Vidant promised to make improvements, streamline operations and continue to provide services.
But in July 2014, Vidant shut the hospital down, cleared out all its equipment and gave the building back to Pantego Creek LLC. Residents in some of the most distant parts of Beaufort and Hyde counties were left with an hour’s drive to the nearest emergency department.
Some residents of the town have been trying to reopen the hospital ever since, and at various times over the past two years have teetered between success and failure.
Most recently, a non-profit formed by hospital supporters, called Pungo Medical Center, offered to pay Pantego Creek LLC $500,000 for the single story brick building on Pungo Creek.
Vidant – which says it no longer has anything to do with the hospital and has no relationship with the LLC – has a standing offer to pay up to $800,000 for Pantego Creek LLC to use to demolish the building.
Brantley Tillman, a manager of the LLC and a commercial real estate developer in Raleigh, has referred questions about the hospital to Arey Grady III, a lawyer in New Bern who represents the LLC. A secretary said Grady was in his office last week but he did not return phone calls to discuss the hospital. Greenville-based WITN television news reported that Grady gave it a prepared statement last week that said the managers had rejected offers “because the property is more valuable than the offered amounts,” and that demolition would go forward.
Earlier this year, Grady told The N&O that the LLC did not believe that the hospital could be reopened and run successfully.
O’Neal and others who have pressed for the hospital’s reopening say that Vidant executives closed the hospital in Belhaven in order to drive more patients to their other hospitals in the region: in Washington, Nags Head and the company’s flagship, in Greenville.
After Vidant closed the Belhaven hospital, it opened a 24-hour clinic in the town, where patients can get primary care and treatment for some acute illnesses and minor injuries. Vidant has said that providing good primary care will help reduce the need for emergency care.
But O’Neal says what the community misses most about the hospital is the emergency room, where residents suffering heart attacks or strokes, or injured in hunting, farming and traffic accidents can get life-saving treatment fast.
Now, those in need of emergency care must rely on a friend, a relative or an ambulance to drive them out of town. In some cases, a helicopter can be summoned from Greenville to transport patients.
Last year, Vidant gave money to county emergency services to add to the fleet of ambulances serving the area.
“That’s not good enough,” O’Neal said. “We have people dying because they can’t get to emergency care fast enough.”
He says supporters have enough money committed in federal rural economic development loans and private investment to reopen the hospital with an emergency department. The building also could house other medical services to subsidize the cost of the emergency department, O’Neal says.
It’s not clear what would become of the property if the hospital is torn down. As a non-profit, the LLC could not hold onto it indefinitely, Grady has said, without putting it to use to benefit the community that owns it.
“I don’t really see how it benefits anybody, except maybe Vidant, to tear down the building,” said Belhaven Town Manager Woody Jarvis. Jarvis said he had heard claims that the building had begun to show mold growth after going for the past year with no heating or air conditioning.
“If the ceiling tiles have mold, you take them down and replace them. If the walls have mold, they’re masonry, so you pressure wash and paint them and go back about your business,” Jarvis said. “We hate to see it torn down.”
O’Neal said his group would continue to fight to save the building and reopen it.