Belhaven mayor wraps march to DC to save hospital

Jul. 28, 2014 @ 12:24 PM

A North Carolina mayor fighting for the hospital that closed in his rural North Carolina town is about to finish his protest march to the nation's capital.

Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal was planning to complete his march Monday in Washington, D.C. The 45-year-old registered Republican started his two-week, 300-mile march to protest the closing of Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven on July 1.

Getting the hospital chain Vidant Health System to reverse the closing is "one of the things that keeps driving me north and hoping for some justice — the mere idea that a non-profit — a non-profit — whose mission is health care in northeastern North Carolina" will reconsider, O'Neal said Friday as he walked along a busy commuter highway in the northern Virginia suburbs.

Greenville-based Vidant agreed in April to operate the hospital until July and provide $1 million if local officials would provide an additional $2 million. A Vidant executive said the town wasn't ready as of June to take over the hospital.

"After multiple attempts throughout the 90-day extension to contact the town of Belhaven to help coordinate plans for assuming hospital operations, the lack of response made it apparent that the town knew that it did not have a plan to take over hospital operations," Vidant Community Hospitals President Roger Robertson said the day before the closure.

Vidant Health officials said in September they would close the hospital in May, in part because North Carolina lawmakers refused federal funding to expand Medicaid that would pay bills of poor patients. Vidant CEO Dr. David Herman said the hospital had provided more than $2 million in unpaid health care since 2011, when Vidant took it over.

"The condition of the 60-plus-year-old building, changes in new health care regulations and declining patient volumes led us to move up our plans to change the model of health care in Belhaven to better meet the needs of the community," Robertson said in a statement Friday.

About half of all states have refused to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama's health care law, adding to the pressure on hospitals. But the problem of maintaining rural hospitals, which tend to operate on narrower margins, has existed for decades.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studied the economic impact of 140 rural hospitals across the country that closed during the 1990s. They found that within a few years the community's unemployment rate was about 1.6 percentage points higher and the per capita income fell by more than $700.

Beaufort County's unemployment rate was 8 percent in May, compared to 6.4 percent for the entire state.

O'Neal said the fight for the hospital could determine the economic future of a community surrounded by rivers and sounds.

"Not only have they taken emergency room services away from our town, they're also taking every industry we've got away — which is retirees moving into our area. They're not going to move to an area without a hospital," O'Neal said.

O'Neal said he and North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber plan to meet Monday with members of the state's congressional delegation. He's hoping for a meeting with White House officials or U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The NAACP has filed a complaint with Holder's agency, which helped facilitate the agreement that kept the hospital open until this month, seeking an investigation into whether the hospital's closing violates the Civil Rights Act.

O'Neal met last week in Richmond, Virginia, with Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Neither Virginia nor North Carolina has expanded Medicaid under the federal health insurance overhaul law, something McAuliffe favors and O'Neal blames for his local hospital closing.

Meanwhile, the mayor said he's ready to complete his mission.

"Everybody's got blisters, even my mother driving the car" supporting his march, O'Neal said. "But thanks to moleskin, I think I'll be fine."