In September 2013, Vidant Health, a system of hospitals serving 29 counties in eastern North Carolina, that it would be closing the Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven, NC, which they had purchased less than years earlier. Vidant has announced plans to close the hospital on April 1st and demolish the building. It plans to build a new 24-hour clinic that can turn away people without insurance, and does not offer emergency care.
The closest hospital with emergency care would be Vidant Beaufort Hospital in Washington, NC which is located 30 miles (on two-lane rural roads) away from Vidant Pungo Hospital. In life-threatening emergencies such as car accidents or strokes, adding 30 miles can have fatal consequence. From the eastern side of Hyde County which is currently served by Vidant Pungo Hospital, it is a 90 mile drive to Vidant Beaufort Hospital.
When Vidant Health bought the community hospital which opened in 1948 from Pantego Creek, LLC, it signed a contract promising that the hospital would remain open, and that Vidant would improve services. Instead, Vidant stripped out equipment, beds, and services that had brought in revenue for the hospital, and added on the salary of a six-figure executive who visited the hospital only once a week.
At the time of the purchase, Pungo Hospital was losing 1 million dollars a year. Hospitals designated by the government as Critical Access Hospitals are not designed to make money, but rather to ensure that people in rural areas have access to emergency and preventative healthcare. Knowing that patients would be forced to travel to another hospital Vidant had recently purchased, it seemed like a common sense move to consolidate the two operations. If neighboring Hyde County — one of the largest in counties in North Carolina — had a hospital of its own, perhaps that argument could have been made. But forcing people who already travel 60 miles for emergency care to now travel 90 miles is not only bad for human life, it may also be bad business.
Vidant 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 and Mayor Adam O'Neal among others.
Mayor O'Neal believes that Vidant Health never intended to improve the management of Vidant Pungo Hospital to make it more efficient and had planned to close it down from the outset, shifting patients now served by Pungo Hospital to Vidant's larger hospitals in Washington and Greenville. Because Vidant owns all the hospitals in the area, O'Neal believes that Vidant knows that people will have to go to one of their hospitals anyway and closing one would reduce the cost of maintaining the facilities.
According to Vidant Health and heath care advocates, the NC General Assembly's decision to reject Medicaid expansion made it much more difficult for this hospital — and others in states that rejected federal dollars for Medicaid expansion — to operate without losing money. Under the Affordable Care Act, adjustments were made to the way in which Medicaid reimbursements are paid, with the expansion of Medicaid factored into that equation. Thus, states that refuse to accept this funding and allow its residents health insurance are doing more damage to struggling hospitals than they realize.
NAACP and U.S. Department of Justice step in
March 15, 2014: 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 23K 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.
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.
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."