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Belhaven could get second chance at hospital

Belhaven mayor walks to Raleigh to protest hospital closing

Adam O'Neal, the Mayor of Belhaven, held a rally after he walked 130 miles from his town in eastern North Carolina to the Legislature in Raleigh to protest the closing of the local Pungo Hospital in 2014 by Vidant Health.
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Adam O'Neal, the Mayor of Belhaven, held a rally after he walked 130 miles from his town in eastern North Carolina to the Legislature in Raleigh to protest the closing of the local Pungo Hospital in 2014 by Vidant Health.

Belhaven Mayor Andy O’Neal and others who have pressed for the reopening of the hospital in their rural community got some encouragement Wednesday, when N.C. Sen. Bill Cook introduced a provision to eliminate the requirement for a new certificate of need for the facility.

Cook, a Republican whose constituency includes Belhaven, described the provision briefly during a press conference on the front lawn of the legislative building in Raleigh. The event also marked the culmination of O’Neal’s third long-distance walk to the centers of government to garner attention for the closing of Belhaven’s hospital and for the threat posed to other rural hospitals in the state and around the country as large corporations buy out and consolidate health-care operations of all kinds.

O’Neal walked the 130 miles from Belhaven to Raleigh starting last week. He also has walked twice to Washington, D.C.

“This is definitely a classic example of David fighting Goliath,” Cook told a crowd of about three dozen people holding signs that said “Save Rural Hospitals.” He noted that in the story from the Bible, David won.

Belhaven’s hospital opened in the late 1940s and provided the closest emergency room and hospital care for residents of Beaufort and Hyde counties. By the 2000s, it was struggling financially.

The town handed over operation of the hospital in 2011 to Vidant Health, the largest health care system in eastern North Carolina, which also operates hospitals in Washington, Nags Head and Greenville. In 2014, Vidant Health closed the Belhaven hospital, leaving some residents 60 miles from the nearest hospital emergency room.

Vidant and town officials disagree over who was to blame for the hospital’s closing. Vidant is now building a clinic in Belhaven to provide some additional medical services there.

But O’Neal and his supporters have insisted that the hospital must be reopened and say that it can be financially viable with a smaller staff and better management. O’Neal said he has a commitment from a Raleigh group that will pay for the legal work needed to reclaim the hospital through eminent domain, and the promise of a $6 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to get the hospital up and running again.

But the effort has been stymied by the lack of a “certificate of need,” which a hospital must have to operate in the state. The certificates are issued by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

O’Neal and attorneys working on the issue have argued that the hospital should be able to operate under the 49-bed certificate it had when it closed. But O’Neal said DHHS has said that because the hospital was closed, it did not qualify as an “existing facility” under the law and would have to apply for a new certificate, which is not guaranteed.

Critics have said the certificate of need requirement has become a way for health care conglomerates to shut out competition.

“It’s become a racket to protect the big boys,” O’Neal said.

Under the provision introduced Wednesday, Cook said, a community that has the means to reopen a hospital within 36 months of its closing would not have to apply for a new certificate of need.

Cook said he is optimistic that the proposal would find bi-partisan support in the legislature, saying health care is not a Republican or Democratic need.

“We all get sick,” Cook said.

O’Neal said that if the bill gets approval in the coming weeks, the hospital could be reopened in four to eight months.

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