Pointing to Cost of Uninsured Patients, Health Care Provider to Close Sole Hospital in Belhaven, NC, over Strong Protests, Withholding Emergency Care from Thousands


March 5, 2014

Conflict as medical desert emerges in coastal North Carolina | StoryofAmerica
Conflict as medical desert emerges in coastal North Carolina | StoryofAmerica

BELHAVEN, NC - Citing a difficult financial situation partially due to North Carolina's refusal to expand Medicaid, a health care provider announced last week that it will close its hospital in the small town of Belhaven, NC, on April 1 in complete disregard of the community's staunch protests and for the thousands of lives that the provider will put at risk by removing the only emergency care facility in this rural area.

Joining together with Mayor Adam O'Neal and local residents, the NC NAACP filed a Title VI Civil Rights complaint with the US Department of Health and Human Services on Jan. 7th bring Vidant Health and the community to the negotiating table. The Office of Civil Rights with HHS is opening their investigation into the issue and is aware that the emergency room is slated for demolition in early April. If no agreement is reached, the NC NAACP asks that the department cut off federal funding to Vidant until the provider remedies this discriminatory situation.

Vidant Pungo Hospital is the only facility that currently provides emergency care services for 25,000 people in Beaufort and Hyde counties-two of the state's poorest counties located in the heart of the Black Belt. Without the hospital, residents suffering from urgent, life-threatening conditions must travel upwards of thirty miles down two-lane back country roads to reach the nearest hospital in Washington, NC. For those living in Hyde County closer to the coast, that journey could take an hour and a half-an inconvenience when running errands, but a recipe for disaster when in need of emergency care.

Vidant's decision will disproportionately impact and endanger the poor and people of color by stripping the community of the only medical facility required by federal law to provide care to all, regardless of an individual's insurance status or ability to pay. An urgent care center, which Vidant is proposing to build in the hospital's stead, is under no such federal obligation to our most vulnerable populations.

Poor, uninsured mothers, many of whom are African American, rely upon emergency rooms to seek necessary prenatal and postnatal care. North Carolina's infant mortality rate among African Americans - a critical measure of our state's commitment to caring for the least of these - shot up by 7.8 percent in the past two years alone. This tragic trend will only continue if health care providers like Vidant continue to move emergency care facilities out of predominantly poor, predominantly black areas to wealthier, whiter communities with higher rates of health insurance.

"These decisions are hurting white and black, young and old, Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor," said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, president of the NCNAACP. "It's just wrong. The Forward Together Moral Movement stands beside these communities as they fight for their access to life-saving medical care, and we will be heard."

Vidant argues that it is unprofitable to provide care to large uninsured populations, a situation only made more challenging by Gov. Pat McCrory's decision to deny the Medicaid expansion in North Carolina. A Kaiser study predicts that the state's uninsured rate would be cut by 48 percent if the governor agreed to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would make up for recent cuts in state and federal funding to the Vidant Pungo hospital as well as make its service area much more financially appealing.

But in 2011, Vidant Health promised to oversee the Belhaven hospital and to ensure it continued to provide care to the local residents, regardless of the hospital's financial outlook. When the health care provider signed a contract with then-independent Pungo District Hospital, which had opened its doors to Belhaven and the surrounding communities in 1947, Vidant agreed "to maintain the identity and viability of Pungo District Hospital in Pungo's service area."

Mayor O'Neal argues the healthcare provider has violated this legal agreement by voting unanimously to close the hospital and to replace it with an urgent care facility. Ground has yet to be broken on the new clinic, even though the hospital is slated to shutter its doors in four weeks.

"Vidant has justified its decision to close this hospital and to take necessary medical care away from thousands of people by blaming its financial situation, but providing this sort of service to a community in need should not be viewed as an investment opportunity to squeeze profits out of," Dr. Barber said"We are talking about a hospital that has saved thousands of poor people, people of color, elderly people with strokes and heart attacks, women with difficult pregnancies, children who have suffered accidents and victims of storms, the ocean and car crashes. This is not about dollars and cents. This is about life and death." 

O'Neal, the town's highest ranking government official, only found out that Vidant was planning to close the hospital after media called to ask him about the story. He is now working with the NAACP to rally the town and local communities to prevent the hospital from closing.

"Vidant closing our hospital is like ripping the heart out of our town," O'Neal, a Republican who has been in office since 2005, told a local news station. "It is our largest employer, and it is the actually the entity that controls life or death in our area."

O'Neal and community members had hoped that Pantego Creek LLC, the group that oversees Vidant's contract with the Pungo District Hospital, would vote to sue Vidant for breaking its contract-a step that would have prevented them from closing the hospital down on April 1. But the Pantego Creek LLC members voted 78-24 against saving Vidant Pungo Hospital at their Feb. 25 meeting.

Dr. Barber, O'Neal and Belhaven community members attempted to sit in and listen to the vote, but they were blocked at the door. One woman closed the door on the mayor's foot, saying "Move your foot or I'll break it."

"Go ahead and break it then," O'Neal replied.

Later, O'Neal would be allowed into the meeting, but his speaking time was cut from 15 minutes down to three and he left afterwards in protest.

Now, he and other concerned Belhaven residents are waiting to hear what will happen with the Title VI Civil Rights complaint that the Beaufort and Hyde County NAACP branches filed against Vidant. According to the latest census data, fifty-five percent of Belhaven is African American, and 28 percent of residents live in poverty. More than 33 percent and 60 percent of African Americans in Beaufort and Hyde counties, respectively, reported an income below the poverty line. 

"They are trying to take away much-needed emergency care from these communities, and they are doing it behind closed doors for a reason - because they know it is immoral," Dr. Barber said. "We are confident that the federal investigators will hold Vidant to a higher constitutional standard and prevent them from following through with this discriminatory and life-threatening hospital closure in one of North Carolina's poorest communities."  

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