What you are looking at here is a "coming together," as Rev. Dr. William Barber likes to put it, of black and white, conservative Republicans and the historically progressive NAACP, and, an immensely powerful corporation agreeing to work together with some of the poorest, least powerful people in our country.
If there were at times you didn't believe this was possible, don't feel bad. I didn't. As I filmed the March 25 prayer vigil, I remember feeling deep compassion, almost pity for these people in a hopeless situation. "Prayer changes things," the Deacon said, and the Mayor nodded his head. The sun was setting. It was the hospital's darkest hour — just a week before it was scheduled to be closed and then demolished.
But a dawn awaited just beyond the horizon, and this time, it brought with it incredible news. The next day, a settlement was announced (see below), and it was made official in the signing ceremony you see in the photo above: Dr. David Herman, president and CEO of Vidant Health, Inc, signs the agreement mediated by the US Dept. of Justice at the request of the North Carolina NAACP to keep Vidant Pungo Hospital open.
March 26: In a joint statement seen below, the North Carolina NAACP and Vidant Health announced a settlement that will allow Belhaven's hospital to remain open. Vidant Heatlh will operate the hospital and its emergency facilities up until a July 1st handover to a new, community-based entity to run the hospital indefinitely. On Thursday April 3, the parties will hold a joint press conference to announce a strategic plan that could become a model for addressing the "medical desert" crisis impacting America's rural communities.
CLICK HERE for written statement.
Original blog: The U.S. Dept. of Justice has offered mediation to Vidant Health and the North Carolina NAACP to resolve a Title 6 complaint under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven, NC, which serves 25K people in Beaufort and Hyde counties, was purchased by Vidant Health two years ago under a contractual agreement stipulating that Vidant would keep the hospital open and expand services.
Six months ago, Vidant announced it would be closing the hospital instead, forcing patients to travel an additional 30 miles to another hospital recently purchased by Vidant, in Washington, NC.
UPDATE: On March 20 and 21, Story of America was not allowed inside, but we did our best to document the first two days of mediation between Vidant Health and the North Carolina NAACP. Mediation will continue on Wednesday March 26. Unconfirmed reports from Belhaven indicate that Vidant Health intends to go forward with its plan to close the hospital on April 1, and demolish the building soon after.
The two defining power plays of this story thus far are:
(1) Vidant Health's ability to influence Pantego Creek, LLC, with whom it signed the contract to purchase the hospital, NOT to hold them accountable for violating that contract
(2) The North Carolina NAACP's federal complaint, citing Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act which prohibits entities that receive federal funds from spending them in ways that discriminate against minorities. Whether intended or not, Vidant's decision to close the Belhaven hospital would have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, thousands of whom have lived in the region since emancipation.
Both are best explained in our video series.
Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, has travelled to Belhaven, NC three times this year to join in local efforts to prevent the hospital's closing. In part 2 of our video series, and, in more detail in here, Rev. Barber explains the complaint.
We learned on March 15 that the US Justice Department had offered to mediate the dispute. On March 16, NAACP attorney Al McSurely said, "We have reason to believe that there will be talks between both sides to see whether an agreement can be made to slow up the decision to tear the hospital down until after the community can negotiate a better outcome, with the government's help."
Residents of Belhaven, of Beaufort County, and of Hyde County welcomed encouraging news for the second consecutive day after many in the area had given up hope. On Friday, March 14, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners voted in an emergency session (see video) to give the hospital a new lease on life. By a 4 to 3 vote, the commissioners decided to lend $2 million toward the continued operating of the hospital, under different management. The pre-conditions are various and complex, but the decision provides a window of opportunity if the Justice Department mediation fails.
MORE: Belhaven woman plays prayer vigil even as hospital flags are taken down
Original report, Feb. 26: What happens when a state with a high poverty rate refuses the expansion of Medicaid? What happens when a hospital chain buys all the hospitals in an area and creates a monopoly? What happens when that hospital chain begins to consolidate their hospitals leaving some areas with thousands of people without emergency services for nearly 80-100 miles? These are some of the questions that come up in the story of Vidant Pungo Hospital closing in Belhaven, NC.
Vidant Health, a system of hospitals serving 29 counties in eastern North Carolina, announced six months ago that it would be closing the Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven, NC, which they had purchased from a local community group two years earlier. The date set for closing the hospital is April 1st, and it is said that Vidant wants to demolish the building as well.
If Vidant Pungo Hospital is shut down, the closest hospital with emergency care would be Vidant Beaufort Hospital in Washington, NC which is 30 miles west (on two-lane rural roads). Vidant Pungo Hospital is currently the closest emergency room for most people in neighboring Hyde County, many of whom already face a 90-minute drive to get there. Adding an additional 30 minutes could have fatal consequences.
When Vidant Health bought the community hospital, it signed a contract with a local group that became Pantego Creek, LLC. The contract promises to keep the hospital open, and to improve services.
At the time of the purchase, Pungo Hospital was losing $1 million a year. After Vidant took it over, it began losing $2 million a year.
According to Vidant Health and other experts, the NC General Assembly's decision to reject Medicaid expansion made the hospital less viable. Vidant Pungo Hospital serves people in two of the poorest counties in the state — Beaufort and Hyde — where many residents cannot afford to purchase health insurance, and many have no transportation.
Vidant also claims that it could not make the Pungo Hospital viable due to the building's deteriorated state and the lack of revenue. This assessment is fiercely disputed by Dr. Charles Boyette, the hospital's former chief of staff, former mayor and town physician for nearly 50 years.
Dr. Boyette, and the man who replaced him as Mayor, Adam O'Neal, both believe that Vidant Health never intended to improve the management of Vidant Pungo Hospital and make it more efficient. They believe Vidant Health had planned to close the hospital from the outset, and shift patients to another recently-purchased hospital in Washington, NC. Because Vidant owns all the hospitals in the area, people will have to go to one Vidant hospital or another, so, closing one reduces costs dramatically without losing too many customers.
Since September when Vidant announced their decision to close Vidant Pungo Hospital, Mayor O'Neal has organized rallies and petition drives to protest. In January, the North Carolina NAACP filed a Title 6 complaint with the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice claiming that this decision is discriminatory because it disproportionately affects African Americans, women, and the elderly. On Tuesday we learned that a federal investigator had been assigned to the case.