Residents and activists working for years to reopen the community hospital in this rural town heard a nugget of good news from its mayor Saturday as they prepared to march for a revival of emergency health care.
An investment group that wants to reopen the hospital offered the limited liability corporation that controls the building $1 million to buy it last week, Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal said. Paperwork will be finalized this week. The hospital that has been closed since July 2014 could reopen in six months, he said.
“It looks as if we’re about to realize our goal,” he told a crowd of about 70 people gathered for a march. “We’re on a path to reopen the hospital.”
O’Neal and the state NAACP brought national attention the struggle of rural hospitals with their campaign to try to keep open Pungo District Hospital in Belhaven. He has walked twice from his waterside town to Washington, D.C., to dramatize the need for a hospital.
People have been camping out next to the shuttered building for about a month for fear that Pantego Creek LLC, the entity that controls the property, planned to bulldoze it. Pantego Creek representatives recently told a local television station it had no plans to tear down the building. They could not be reached Saturday.
The town and the NAACP have tried to save the hospital since Vidant announced in 2013 that it would close.
They have filed lawsuits alleging unfair trade practices and filed complaints with U.S. Department of Justice. O’Neal convinced the legislature to allow the hospital to reopen without a new certificate of need.
The Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, spoke to the hospital supporters’ perseverance.
“They thought Belhaven was going to roll over – nobody would see it,” he said.
Organizers had planned to march Saturday to the homes of four managers of the Pantego Creek to pressure them to act. With news of an agreement, the crowd ended up taking a short walk past the shuttered hospital and around the block.
“Hopefully, the next time we get together, we’ll be celebrating the opening of the hospital,” said Bill Booth, president of the Beaufort County NAACP.
Greg Satterthwaite of Belhaven greeted news of an impending sale cautiously. Attempts to rescue the hospital have taken so many twists, it’s best to wait and see what happens, he said.
“I’m pretty much guarding my emotions,” he said.
Pungo District Hospital was struggling financially when its governing community board asked Vidant Health to take it over in 2011. Vidant announced in 2013 the plan to close it.
Vidant says it is committed to providing care to residents. Vidant has three doctor’s practices in Belhaven and one office open 24 hours a day, said Chris Mackey, Vidant director of public affairs. In a few weeks, the practices will move to a new multispecialty health clinic that will be open around the clock, she said.
But residents rallying for the hospital say they need an emergency room.
Emergency rooms cannot turn people away because they cannot pay, Barber said, but the clinic “will have the option of who to treat.”
Residents said some of their neighbors have died because they’re no longer close to an emergency room. They named a 16-year-old who died in a farm accident and a 48-year-old woman who died of cardiac arrest.
“We have an emergency here, and it’s an emergency about life and death,” Barber said.