Under the Dome

Rural hospital to close; NAACP protests

Vidant Health, which announced last year that it was closing its hospital in Belhaven, is coming under renewed fire from town officials and the NC NAACP for its decision as the deadline for its closing draws nearer.

The hospital is the only emergency care provider in the rural area and provides services to 25,000 residents of Beaufort and Hyde Counties. The nearest hospital is in Washington, more than 30 miles away.

Greenville-based Vidant said last week that the hospital’s last day would be April 1.

The state NAACP filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in January, trying to bring Vidant and the community together to negotiate. If no agreement is reached, the state NAACP is asking the agency to cut off federal funding to Vidant.

Vidant, which is affiliated with East Carolina University, has said the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid put it in financial dire straits.

According to the latest census data, 28 percent of Belhaven lives in poverty. The hospital is the only one in the area required by federal law to provide care to all, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. Vidant has proposed to build an urgent care center in Belhaven that will not be under the same care provision obligations.

“These decisions are hurting white and black, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor,” said the Rev. William J. Barber, president of the NC NAACP.

Vidant purchased Pungo Hospital in 2011 under a contract that reads the hospital will continue “to maintain the identity and viability of Pungo District Hospital in Pungo’s service area.” The NAACP, Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal and others protesting the closure interpret that to mean that Vidant Health had promised to continue to provide care to residents, regardless of the hospital’s financial outlook. The hospital, formerly known as the Pungo District Hospital, opened in 1947.

In a closed-door meeting last week, the group that oversees the contract, Pantego Creek LLC, decided the closure was not a breach of contract.