The battle over whether to reopen Belhaven’s shuttered hospital continues to cause heartburn for people on both sides of the issue in rural Beaufort and Hyde counties.
As Vidant Health, which closed the hospital nearly two years ago, prepares to open a $5.5 million medical facility in the town that it says will serve most of the community’s needs, hospital supporters are pressing on with a lawsuit over the hospital’s closure. They have set up a tent vigil they say is necessary to keep the building from being surreptitiously demolished.
“We are making progress,” said Mayor Adam O’Neal, who has led the effort to get the hospital running again in the former fishing village, which is home to about 1,700 people, many of them retirees.
Arey Grady, a New Bern-based attorney for Pantego Creek, the limited liability company that owns the building, said his clients had tried in the past to work with the pro-hospital group on a plan for it to acquire the building, but they were unable to agree on terms. Pantego Creek now has lost faith in the group.
“We’ve not seen any plans that lead us to believe that the hospital can be reopened and run successfully,” Grady said.
Opponents have accused each other of spreading rumors and lies throughout the community to try to gain support for their position. Both have tried to capture positive media attention. Each side insists it has the people’s physical health and the town’s economic interests at heart.
The hospital’s supporters work with a sense of urgency, and not just because several residents have died before they could get to an emergency room since the hospital closed.
Under state regulations changed last year at the town’s request, a hospital’s supporters have two years from the day a hospital shuts down to give notice that they plan to reopen it. For Belhaven, that’s July 1. They will have three years after that, until July 1, 2019, to get it up and running. If they miss either deadline they have to apply for a new certificate of need allowing them to operate a hospital, a lengthy and uncertain process.
O’Neal said the group is preparing the notice now, and once it takes possession of the building, it could have it back in operation within months.
The dispute started in 2013 when Vidant, the large Greenville-based health care company, announced it was closing the Pungo District Hospital – two years after taking it over at the request of the community board that oversaw the hospital. The board had been trying to save the hospital, which was losing money. After Vidant announced its plan to close Pungo, O’Neal and others launched an effort to keep it open. But it shut down July 1, 2014, leaving some residents an hour’s drive from the nearest emergency room.
Ownership of the hospital reverted to the community board, Pantego Creek LLC, a nonprofit which has some 120 members but is run by four managers, including Brantley Tillman, a commercial real estate developer in Raleigh who has a home in Belhaven. Calls to the managers were referred to Grady.
Health care experts are interested in Belhaven because communities across the state and around the country are trying to figure out how best to provide care for their own rural residents, who tend to be sicker, poorer and less insured than the population as a whole.
Since it closed the hospital, Vidant has given money to county emergency medical departments to expand and improve ambulance service to its hospitals in Washington (about 25 miles away) and Greenville (about 50 miles). It also has operated a 24-hour clinic in the town where patients can get urgent care for minor illnesses and injuries, and it has several doctors working in the town. The clinic and the doctors’ offices will be consolidated into the new medical building now going up.
Vidant spokeswoman Chris Mackey said that is expected to open in mid-June with X-ray and ultrasound equipment and a helicopter landing pad.
Vidant has a live web camera on the construction site where viewers can watch the progress.
The company has promised to operate the clinic for at least three years.
But as the clinic nears completion, O’Neal said Vidant has more incentive than ever to quash the effort to reopen the former hospital, because it would be competition. He believes the corporation has been pressuring Pantego Creek LLC to accept a still-viable contractual offer it made to pay up to $800,000 to demolish the single-story brick hospital building. Vidant says it is unaware of any plans regarding the hospital and has no affiliation with the LLC or its managers.
“These people have decided that we don’t need a hospital,” said O’Neal, whose great-grandparents once owned part of the land where the hospital was later built. “Well, the hell with that.”
Grady, the LLC’s attorney, said he believes that legally, the four managers could vote to tear the building down, but he said he does not think they would do so without first polling the membership, either at a meeting or by proxy.
“Then,” he said, “we would have to go through the town to get the demolition permit. I’ve got to think that if we went to get a permit dealing with anything on that building, everybody in town would know in about 10 minutes.
“So it’s not like the bulldozers are just going to come rolling in.”
Grady said the group recently hired a company to inspect the building and do materials testing, but said that was because the structure has gone unused for nearly two years, and the LLC needs to know what condition it’s in.
“You can’t trust ‘em,” O’Neal said, so he and others have been taking turns for more than two weeks keeping watch over the building from an encampment across a canal. O’Neal said someone is at the camp around the clock, and it has become a bit of a gathering spot in the evenings, when the pro-hospital crowd lights a campfire.
If heavy equipment were to show up, O’Neal said “There will be a flood of people to that property and people willing to lie down in front of the bulldozers.”
O’Neal held a press conference at the site on Saturday with the Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. chapter of the NAACP. Barber’s group and the Town of Belhaven filed a lawsuit over the hospital closure, claiming it disproportionately affects poor people and minorities; about 55 percent of Belhaven’s population is black. Beaufort County’s population is about 25 percent black. The suit was dismissed last fall. The group is appealing, and this week filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department alleging Vidant acted improperly in moving the case out of the jurisdiction of a black judge so that it could be heard by a white one.
While the pro-hospital group had planned to try to wrest control of the hospital from the LLC through a claim of eminent domain, O’Neal says that process would take too long. He now hopes the LLC’s managers will give the hospital – valued at $6 million when it was still open – to the non-profit his group is forming that would operate it as Pungo Medical Center.
O’Neal says he has the promise of a $6 million USDA rural development loan to get the hospital started.
“We have a viable plan,” said O’Neal, who is in discussions with a hospital management company he said would lease 30 of the hospital’s beds for veterans, providing steady income to help support an emergency room and additional beds. O’Neal said his group is prepared to purchase billboards to place on highway approaches to the town – a tourist and retirement destination – naming the four managers of the LLC, whom it regards as obstructionists. It has taken to calling the managers “the four demolitioners.”
Grady said the LLC is unlikely to hand over the hospital because if O’Neal’s group can’t make a go of it and defaults on its government loan, “Then the next question is, What happens to the property? It’s foreclosed on, and where does it go? Who knows?”
If the hospital doesn’t reopen, it’s not clear what would happen to the property. Pantego Creek LLC would not hold onto it indefinitely, Grady said, without putting it to use to benefit the community that owns it, but he said the group has not discussed alternate uses for it.
In the meantime, he said, the rift over the hospital’s closure and proposed reopening has caused injuries no emergency-room doctor could fix.
“I think it has ripped the community apart,” Grady said, “and I don’t think it’s one person or one group. Everybody has been touched by it. I think there are very deep wounds and scars that will take a long time to heal, if they ever can heal.”
The story so far
1949: Pungo District Hospital opens in Belhaven to serve rural Beaufort and Hyde counties
1997: Hospital has 175 employees, sells bonds to finance two additions and a major renovation
2001: Hospital files for bankruptcy but stays open
2011: As expenses exceed revenues, Pantego Creek LLC, the community nonprofit that owns Pungo District Hospital, approaches the company now called Vidant Health about taking over the hospital. Vidant begins operating it in September.
2013: Vidant announces it will close the hospital. Mayor Adam O’Neal and others begin looking for ways to prevent closure.
2014: NAACP files a federal complaint that the closure will disproportionately affect poor people and minorities. Hospital closes July 1. July 14, O’Neal begins walking to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to hospital fight.
2015: Vidant begins construction on new 12,000-square-foot building in Belhaven to house doctors’ offices and 24-hour clinic. O’Neal and supporters make a second march to Washington, followed later by a march to Raleigh. A federal judge dismisses the NAACP complaint; the group appeals. Legislators change certificate-of-need rules, providing a window in which they can avoid a closed hospital can re-open without going through the certification process. Belhaven holds bitterly contested municipal elections in which the hospital is the central issue; O’Neal is re-elected.
2016: Pro-hospital forces set up camp to watch over hospital building; Pantego Creek LLC hires company to do materials testing on building to see what shape it’s in.