Category Archives: Belhaven

Requiem for a small town: Belhaven

By Joe Salotti | Guest Commentary

The town of Belhaven has two primary assets. Without them, Belhaven cannot survive. These are: 1) The good, honest, caring, and taxpaying citizens; 2) The view and relationship with the waters around the town, which have given the community its purpose for existence.

These very elements of survival, as a town, have been challenged by their loss for many years. Unfortunately, the loss of industry and resources has had a big impact on the economy of the area. It is not this loss that is paramount to the heart of Belhaven. It is the loss of the spirit of purpose that our forefathers, and foremothers, had in building this town — born of need and caring for humanity. The spirit of Belhaven has been replaced by the inbreeding of the old money and good-ole-boy syndrome. The economy of the Belhaven area has been feeding off itself for too long, fueled for the most part by some distant jobs, Social Security, Welfare, and Small Businesses.

An economy is not perpetual; it goes up, down, or simply grinds to a halt. Belhaven’s economy is dying, and the town is in decay. You just have to look around to see it. It does not have to be this way.

We are not going to have to wait for the economy to die because the factions that created and prolonged the issues of the old hospital in Belhaven are killing it – and the spirit of the town with it. The one main element that is missing from the efforts of these folks is the interest and consideration for the health and welfare of the populace of the Region.

The Mayor — with his chest pounding, political posturing, and adolescent behavior — has demoralized the town. He has embarrassed the town among the populace, throughout the region and state. With his questionable tactics, such as the ‘Good-ole-boy Utilities Give Away,’ he has stretched the moral fiber of the Townspeople. He has done nothing for the betterment of the town or its citizens and needs to turn in his resignation, post haste.

The Pantego Creek LLC and its managers formed a special interest group. Though well intended, this group compromised a key element of Belhaven’s future: The town’s view and relationship with the waters that surround it. The LLC has bolstered the old hospital for nostalgia, not for the health interest of this region.

Those of you who comprise the LLC have had your 15 minutes in the spotlight; now it is time to help save the Town of Belhaven. All the property of the old hospital should be signed over to the Town for the use of its citizens — never to be sold. If not, the Town of Belhaven should take the property under eminent domain and pay each member of the LLC, one dollar, for its consideration.

The LLC should build a pencil factory (or something using local products) that would put revenue back into the town and put some citizens to work. The waterfront should be developed for the use of its people. If a Developer should get this property and builds a structure like the Day Beacon, it will seal the fate of Belhaven to a few well to do people and provide little overall value to the town.

On this site could be built the Belhaven Regional Civic Mall. It would be built 12 feet off the ground to preserve the view of the harbor from Pamlico Street and the surrounding area. The people could see and enjoy Haven’s Walk. The boardwalk would go from the Wildlife Access to the Charlie Smith Community House and beyond — but that is another story.

You know that in its heyday of 1923, Belhaven had a boardwalk with a Pavilion. There was music, dancing, movies, fishing, and people. The Civic Mall would include a 200 stadium-seat Cultural Arts Theatre — to be used for events, all types of shows, and the likes of the Tuesday night jam sessions. There would be a true regional history museum that would be established and run by the NC Department of History. There would be a small gift shop, public space for meetings and events and maybe a coffee shop of sorts, operated by locals for all the Townspeople and a tourist or two, if they come, and they will. There would be a covered deck all around so that the people could sit and watch the sunsets. The building would be atop concrete pillars; the building would be of materials and designed to withstand the worst of hurricanes. You see, this Mall would also be a refuge, equipped for the people, if need be.

On Sept. 2, 1913, there was a great hurricane that pretty well wiped out the Town of Belhaven. At that time, the 100-year flood elevation was set at 7.4 feet above mean sea level. There was five feet or more of water and debris that stood in the downtown businesses. What does that tell you, folks?

In 1948, the Belhaven Hospital was built flat on the ground. Later, new additions were built on slightly raised areas. It was built like a sponge, of cinder block and brick veneer; with a lot of gapes and hidden air pockets. Then came high water events: Hurricane Hazel, Diane, Bertha, and Fran. Hurricane Fran was especially bad with eight feet of water filling the streets of downtown Belhaven. The torrents of rain and damaging winds tore at the old sentinel of health.

There was tropical storm Josephine; and then came Hurricane Bonnie and others that soaked the base of the hospital even with the levee walls. Along with the leaky roofs the structure became a culture tray for germs, bacteria, mold, and mildew; with the potential for unhealthy levels of airborne contamination and respiratory illnesses. You know the adage, “that a boat is a hole in the water where you throw money!” Well, the old hospital could no longer float.  There has to be a whole lot of credit given to the good people who built the hospital, the doctors, the nurses, and the staff, that endured the hardships of a hospital under siege and provide a good level of care. They had to care about the people, and it is sad that today’s healthcare can’t be the same. It is the almighty buck that is the plague of our time.

Now; what of Vidant and a new hospital? It is well established, at this time, that Vidant is dedicated to the many clauses of your insurance policy and if you don’t have one they are not dedicated at all. The new facility in Belhaven is hardly more than a half-staffed doctor’s office. Some of the doctors may have a heart but the business does not. If Vidant is not going to provide the services that the people — all the people — need and want,  then their charter in the Town of Belhaven and the county of Beaufort must be revoked and they should get out.

If we are forced to drive 30 to 50 miles for decent healthcare, we don’t need them to tell us which direction to go. The terms of healthcare are humanity, not a corporate bottom line. Our Town, County, State, and Federal leaders will have to see that it is built and it will have a fully functional Emergency Room; if the people come together and demand it so.

The people of the region of Pantego, Pungo, and the Pamlico, the County of Beaufort, the State of North Carolina, and the government of the USA should build a proper hospital in Belhaven to serve up to 20,000 people. It would be central to the town. The building will be high and dry and of the materials and design to withstand a tidal surge, winds of 300 mph, and maintain function in any kind of weather. A hospital in this region is not just healthcare — it is a refuge for the people; when Mother Nature gets angry with how we treat her land and resources; but that, is another story.

Since its beginning, Belhaven has had many tragedies: natural, commercial, and industrial. Many times the Townspeople reinvented or rebuilt the town. Today there are a few young entrepreneurs who are trying to swim against the tide of adversity but it does not bring the people and the industry that is needed. The old guard and old money is diluted and dying; their children’s children have left or are leaving. The grand old houses are too expensive to fix or even to tear down and few taxes are paid. They go to rot with the shame that the town will not see that justice is done and leave them to memory. The houses that are renovated are done so beyond their value. These houses can be sold to the unsuspecting buyer; who soon finds that Belhaven is not what it seems.

It sounds pretty bad, does it not? It is true that this is not Mayberry and there is no joke here. Have you noticed that there has been a lot of turnover in personnel in the Town Hall over these last few months? Of course, it is not just the fault of the Mayor and his handy clan. It is the cartel of good-ole-boys who run the town from the local diners instead of the Town Hall meetings. They don’t want the town to change as long as they have the influence. The problem is that we, THE  PEOPLE, do not make the effort to elect good leaders and go to the meetings to ensure that the town is being served now and for the future. Do you realize that for every family that accepted the Good-Ole-Boy Utilities Give Away, there is a person who has stolen from his neighbor; trying to get something for nothing; and sell their vote without care for the Town and its people? There are, or should be, programs to help the less fortunate.

Belhaven’s issues at hand need to be resolved. Our citizens need to be united under a competent leadership with some common sense to redefine a purpose such as our forebears had in building the town.

If there is to be a serious change to save the Town of Belhaven, then it will take the voices and support of every citizen of the Town and those in the Region. The book “Town of Belhaven Centennial” gives witness to the fact that, it can be done. In 1914, the 7th grade of the Belhaven graded school was given the challenge to organize their class for a special event. They accepted the challenge and penned the motto “Find a Way or Make a Way.”

What could be more fitting for our challenge of today?

The Town of Belhaven is dying of neglect and decay. Of course, if this is what the people of Belhaven wants of its heritage; then Amen is the only thing left to say. It does not have to be this way.

Credit Belhaven mayor, NAACP for ‘tenacity and perseverance’ in fight against Vidant

By Betty Murphy

BELHAVEN – Saturday, April 30, may well have been a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment when Belhaven town officials and the NAACP hosted a press conference to announce jointly filed federal complaints — an integral part of the evolving Save Our Hospital movement!

It has been two years since Greenville-based medical behemoth Vidant Health closed Belhaven’s beloved Pungo District Hospital. In most hearts and minds of this rural community (and to many knowledgeable outsiders), Vidant Health never intended to keep Pungo Hospital operating!

It all came to a head on April 30th. Rev. William Barber, leader of the North Carolina NAACP Chapter joined Belhaven Mayor O’Neal in a ‘no holds barred’ media event. The two men jointly announced the filing of a formal Anti-Trust Complaint with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Rev. Barber also filed for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division into the surprise removal of Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch, Jr. from a case remanded to him, allegedly without notice.

Judge Fitch, who is black, was replaced with a white judge. Was proper court process followed?

O’Neal filed a lengthy and detailed Anti-Trust Complaint citing numerous allegations against Vidant and Pantego Creek, LLC. Several exhibits were included in support of the allegations.

Pungo District Hospital, like many rural hospitals, has been no stranger to financial problems — having filed bankruptcy in 2001.

Facing costs associated with overstaffing, fiscal mismanagement, failure to install federally mandated technology, and a variety of other concerns, the board of directors for Pungo District Hospital desperately sought a way to keep the facility open.

At the same time, Vidant Health was acquiring two area midsize hospitals (in Duplin and Beaufort counties) that were also floundering financially — in amounts far greater than Pungo’s $1.5 million annual deficit.

Rural hospitals are seldom profitable. If they break even, they are doing well.

Some have raised concerns about the current financial status of Vidant Beaufort Hospital, located in Washington. Since 2011, Vidant’s obscure financial reporting has become even worse. Blame an accounting procedure known as ‘Consolidated Reporting’ in which financial data for all of Vidant Health is blended and combined into an indecipherable mush.

Even the individual practices of physicians (outside hospitals) – an entity known as Vidant Medical Group — are no longer reported separately, making a mockery of promises for greater transparency.

More and more pieces of this tangled mess are coming to light. Many believe Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal has laid his personal and political life on the line for town residents. Few individuals possess the tenacity and perseverance to take a stand against injustices such as those that have been visited upon Belhaven citizens.

On the other hand, Pantego Creek, LLC, the current owner of the former hospital building and site in Belhaven, is apparently indebted to Vidant.

Records show $50,000 going as seed money to set up an entity for Tax Exempt Status, with another $10,000 for the actual application.

Insiders say a process that should have taken six months instead ended up taking three years, from September 2011 until October 2014.

After several attempts Pantego Creek, LLC. received IRS 501-c-3 status with a specific category, known as Section 509 (a) (3): Supporting Organizations – an organization that is organized and operated exclusively for the benefit of one or more organizations.”

According to the IRS 990 annual reports, the stated mission of Pantego Creek, LLC is to:

“To support Pungo District Hospital …to ensure compliance with the operating agreement signed between Pungo District Hospital and Vidant Medical Center.”

Those familiar with this saga contend Pantego Creek, LLC.’s stated mission and sole purpose as submitted to the IRS became invalid when Vidant Health closed Pungo District Hospital and transferred the property deed to Pantego Creek, LLC.

Pantego Creek’s reluctance to release the property deed to the Town of Belhaven may be a sign that they no longer trust Vidant to live up to its commitment. In June, Vidant plans to open a new Medical Office Building not far from the former hospital.

In a request to the NC Department of Health and Human Services seeking an exemption from the Certificate of Need requirement, Vidant Health stated no new services will be offered and since Vidant intends to pay for the Medical Office Building out of reserve funds, no state oversight should be required.

The initial cost summary submitted estimated the Medical Office Building would cost $4.3 million – a figure that is now reported as closer to $6 million. The property is now deeded to Vidant Medical Group (Physicians) for tax purposes.

There is some question of the utilization of the helipad, which requires stabilization of patients being transferred by helicopter. The fact remains 25,000 individuals are being denied emergency services in a rural area in which life-threatening accidents are a known factor.

There is a sense of urgency here in Belhaven. One member of Pantego Creek, LLC has suggested demolition of the former hospital might be ordered. In recent weeks, an environmental contractor was hired – one of the first steps prior to any demolition.

Town residents have taken this threat seriously and have setup a 24/7 encampment across from the former hospital building, presumably to thwart any bulldozers that might show up.

In 2014, Vidant Health agreed “to contribute an amount up to $800,000” for the express purpose “to demolish and remove all or any improvements…..” to the (hospital) property. Additionally Vidant offered extensive help in vetting a demolition contractor, obtaining a fixed price proposal and assured Pantego Creek, LLC of ‘assistance’ if the price proposal were to exceed the original $800,000 estimate.

It all came to a head on April 30th. Reverend William Barber, State NAACP Head, joined Mayor O’Neal in a Press Conference to end all press conferences. No holds barred! They jointly announced the filing of a formal Anti Trust Complaint with U.S.Attorney General Loretta Lynch to an audience of about 50 residents, NC NAACP representatives and Belhaven town officials.

Rev. Barber filed for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division into the surprise removal of Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch, Jr. from the case remanded to him, allegedly without notice. Judge Fitch is one of a few minority Judges in Eastern NC. He was replaced with a white judge. Was proper court process followed?

Mayor O’Neal filed a lengthy detailed Anti Trust Complaint citing numerous allegations against Vidant and Pantego Creek, Llc. Several exhibits were included substantiating the allegations. Clean Hands and Transparency are not now and never have been strong suits of Vidant Health.

Rural healthcare suffers from broken system, says Belhaven mayor


Adam O’Neal

By Adam O’Neal, Mayor | Town of Belhaven

BELHAVEN — The truth is the Certificate of Need process is broken. I know the big hospitals have said that rural areas need Certificate of Need to keep rural county hospitals open. You know the story of what happened in Belhaven. Our hospital was struggling. A community-organized board decided the best step was to hand it over to Vidant Healthcare — the big hospital system in Greenville.

We thought they would put a handle on the facility appropriately and keep it open to serve patients in the Belhaven area.

We were wrong! Vidant closed our hospital and shifted those services to the hospital they run in Washington — 35 miles away. Since then, we have had several instances of emergency situations where people have died because of the added distance to reach an emergency facility.

We had a community in Belhaven that was willing to find the money and take the chance of reopening the facility on our own. We addressed the problem and found funding to reopen our hospital facility. All along, our lawyers were telling us to not worry about Certificate of Need regulations since we were an existing facility. Everything was going well, and we were encouraged that we would be able to reopen our hospital.

Then we ran into a roadblock. The state regulators for Certificate of Need said we couldn’t reopen the hospital because regulations said it had to be currently operating to get approved.

That’s where we are today. And unless the North Carolina General Assembly finds a way to reform our state’s Certificate of Need laws, a government bureaucrat has the power to keep us from reopening our hospital.

Ouch! Obamacare hurts, says Vidant Health

(Click on Map to Enlarge)
By Beth Anne Atkins | Special to the County Compass


GREENVILLE — As Vidant Health continues to be challenged by significant reductions in government reimbursements due to the Affordable Care Act, its Board of Directors approved the Fiscal Year 2015 operational plan this week, which provides the strategic direction and financial resources needed to guide and fund the health system during the next year. 

The health care system, which has seen significant reductions to the amounts reimbursed by both Medicare and Medicaid, is predicting an operating margin less than half of that budgeted in 2014. 

Art Keeney, board chairman, thanked the committees for their direction and contributions over the past several months in bringing together an operational plan and budget that “focuses on clinical effectiveness, healthy people and communities, and affordable care.” 

Keeney also emphasized that “Vidant Health remains a healthy organization in an extremely challenging industry that is moving very quickly from payment that is paid per visit or procedure to payment-for-value. This budget provides the funding necessary to continue Vidant’s position as the highest-valued health care system throughout Eastern Carolina.

The Vidant Health budget projects total operating and non-operating revenues of $1.574 billion, operating and non-operating expenses of $1.529 billion, yielding a profit of $44.6 million, which represents an operating margin of 1.8 percent — less than half of what was budgeted in 2014. Any margin will be reinvested back into facilities, new services, equipment, and system employees. 

Vidant Health will focus capital reinvestment (more than $128.3 million in the next year) on the beginning of a new cancer center, information systems, diagnostic services, normal equipment replacement and much-needed upgrades in the core infrastructure of the system’s hospitals. If further reductions in reimbursement occur, the ability to fund these capital requirements will be at risk.

The system estimates providing care to 63,300 inpatients, 1.2 million combined emergency department and outpatients visits, perform 45,000 surgeries, and deliver 6,100 babies during the next fiscal year.

Dr. Marcus Albernaz, finance committee chairman, explained the budget emphasizes building on the high-quality patient care already provided throughout the system and recognizing the importance of the system’s 10,572 full-time-equivalent employees. The budget funds salaries and benefits of $869 million for the system’s employees. He further indicated that Vidant Health is moving toward a more integrated system of care — versus a collection of individual sites — to provide the highest-quality care in the most cost-effective setting. 

Leaders will continue to focus on the most effective and efficient way to provide health care in eastern North Carolina by assessing all positions when they become vacant and looking at streamlining processes. 

Vidant Health, a mission-driven, not-for-profit corporation, owns, leases or has a majority membership interest in eight eastern North Carolina hospitals. The health system includes Vidant Beaufort Hospital, Vidant Bertie Hospital, Vidant Chowan Hospital, Vidant Duplin Hospital, Vidant Edgecombe Hospital, The Outer Banks Hospital, Vidant Medical Center, Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital, Vidant Home Health and Hospice, Vidant Wellness Centers, Vidant Medical Group and is affiliated with the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.


Greed, not need, main factor in hospital closing

pungo closed
By Editorial Team | Special to the County Compass

BELHAVEN — Pungo District Hospital closed its doors Tuesday. Whether it will be forever, or whether the community will be successful in saving their hospital, remains to be seen.

University Health System, now Vidant, took over the Pungo Hospital nearly two years ago when the local management was unable to make a go of it. Vidant promised to not only provide continuing health care through Pungo, but also to expand services. Now, two years later Vidant is closing the facility.

Technically, a group of investors in Pantego Creek LLC own the hospital—at least the physical assets including the land and building. That group’s governing board recently decided to not participate with the Town of Belhaven, Beaufort County and interested citizens in taking the operation back from Vidant and continuing to operate the Pungo Hospital. They reportedly propose to tear the building down. The hospital’s doors remain closed.

Vidant, on the other hand, proposes to open a 24/7 clinic that they contend will provide adequate health services. But that facility will not have an emergency room capable of treating emergency cases such as stroke victims, heart attack or trauma patients. Vidant proposes as an alternative to provide some funding to upgrade the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) to have paramedics on ambulances to respond to emergency calls to take patients to Beaufort Vidant in Washington. The hospital’s doors remain closed.

Concerned citizens fear the long ambulance ride to Washington, or even to Greenville, and want to keep an emergency room in Belhaven. Vidant claims it cannot make enough money to do that. The hospital’s doors remain closed.

“Saving our Hospital” has now become the battle cry for many concerned citizens in Hyde and northeastern Beaufort County. Lead by Belhaven Mayor Adam ONeal they have formed a non-profit corporation named Pungo District Hospital Corporation and have been trying to negotiate with Pantego Creek LLC and Vidant to take over the hospital. That’s where the fog rolls in. The hospital’s doors remain closed.

The principals have been “negotiating” for weeks and have not been able to come up with a plan to keep the hospital operating. There is one group, the Pungo District Hospital Corporation, led by Mayor ONeal and community leaders, who want to at least try to operate Pungo to keep its designation as a hospital with an emergency room and thus qualify for Medicare and Medicaid funding. Others, including the LLC and Vidant say it can’t be done. The hospital’s doors remain closed.

So Vidant announced that it would close Pungo July 1, and it has now done just that. Only now the lawyers have ridden into town. Vidant’s got a gaggle of lawyers and the NAACP has now sent in a legal team and the NAACP has filed a formal Title VI complaint with the Justice Department asking the federal agency to intervene under complex Federal regulations and to obtain injunctive relief to enable the hospital to continue to operate. The Department of Justice did get a mediation process going but it has obviously not been successful at this point. The hospital’s doors remain closed.

The NAACP contends that the closing of Pungo will have a disparate impact on minorities and the Federal government must therefore intervene to protect access to health care for the poor people in the region. It remains to be seen if, or when the Department of Justice will act. The hospital’s doors remain closed.

Here’s where the fog gets really bad. It’s not clear why the LLC and Vidant don’t just let the newly formed group have the existing hospital and its resources and see if they can make a go of it. When you listen to the “insiders” at this point it gets terribly complicated and virtually impossible to ferret out the answer to the question: “What’s the problem here?” Meanwhile, the hospital’s doors remain closed.

So, in summary, what you have is two groups saying the hospital can’t make a go of it and a third group saying they want to give it a try. The first two groups won’t let the third group try. While the groups throw rocks at each other—you’ve got it: The hospital’s doors remain closed.

We have been told by a number of people that there really is an explanation for why this mess exists. What we have been told is that Vidant does not want Pungo to continue to operate as a hospital simply because it would be a competitor. They prefer, under this theory, to funnel patients that would be served in Belhaven to their Vidant Beaufort facility in Washington or to their home facility in Greenville. A clinic would do just that. Under this theory, Vidant exerts control over Pantego Creek LLC, although Vidant disavows any link. The hospital’s doors remain closed.


We don’t pretend to know anything about all these Federal regulations on health care. But what we do know is that the people of northeast Beaufort County and Hyde County need quality health care. And adding an hour’s additional ambulance ride does not, in our opinion, provide as good health care as an emergency room in Belhaven.

So Vidant can’t make the bottom line work at Pungo. If you accept that Vidant has the right to divide its organization into whatever cost centers it chooses, and if in doing so, Pungo does not breakeven, we accept Vidant has a right to walk away.

But we don’t accept that Vidant can hold Pungo responsible for being financially self-sufficient. Vidant is a huge conglomerate. Its elements, which make millions of dollars, do so because of the region’s support. In fact, we would contend that Vidant sucks millions of health care dollars out of Hyde and Beaufort counties and those dollars show up on the books of Vidant Greenville.

Look at it this way. If Vidant’s bottom line were adjusted for only what it takes in from Pitt County it would certainly be a different picture. So if that is true, why does not Vidant channel some of those dollars that show up on its Greenville financial reports back to the communities from which the money came in the first place?

We know! Much of the actual money comes from Washington, D.C. but that misses the point. The federal revenue Vidant takes in at its Pitt county facilities comes in part because patients in Beaufort and Hyde counties choose to seek health care with Vidant. Thus, Vidant has, we feel, a duty to “give back” what it sucks out of the rural, poor regions.

Secondly, we think the Pantego Creek LLC and Vidant should simply walk away from this mess and let the Pungo District Hospital Corporation see if it can make Pungo work. Forget all the obfuscation and haggling over legal mumbo-jumbo. Either run the place or walk away and let somebody else give it a try. At least the doors would not remain closed.

Vidant pulls plug on Belhaven hospital

By Betty Murphy | Special to the County Compass

TBO-PAGE-23-PUNGO-PIC-1BELHAVEN — On June 18, the Hyde County Health Department and the Hyde County Chamber of Commerce sponsored a public meeting on the changes in healthcare. The guest speaker was Vidant CEO Dr. David Herman. About 25 residents from Beaufort and Hyde Counties posed questions about local concerns, including Vidant’s decision to close the hospital here in Belhaven, which serves a population of approximately 25,000 in a combined rural area of the two counties.

If Vidant thought their “problem child” would go away quietly — never to be seen or heard from again — that was not the case last week in Hyde County, nor will it be next year.

About six months ago Rocky Jacobs, Chairman of Pungo Hospital Council, was overheard saying “in three years this will all be forgotten.”

In the audience, Dr. Herman saw some familiar faces – area residents who have made their concerns known by faithfully attending public meetings and church meetings. Although he attempted to cut short some of the questions, Herman still had to respond, especially when Dr. Charles Boyette (Herman’s nemesis and chief physician at Pungo District Hospital) asked him about the contract breaches.

It was obvious from Herman’s canned responses that his legal team had prompted him well. Damage control and “spinning the story” are almost a daily item at Vidant.

Vidant’s notice short, less than sweet

The notification letter from Vidant Pungo Hospital President Harvey Case was short and to the point.

“Effective at 12:01 AM on the morning of Tuesday July 1, 2014, Vidant Pungo Hospital will cease providing emergency and other hospital services. Please inform all emergency resources of the change and modify your operations accordingly.”

In less than 50 words, John Pack, director of Beaufort County’s Emergency Management Services, received his marching orders. Pack was ready to put his plan in action. Proving, as he has demonstrated in the past, that Beaufort County EMS is prepared for any disaster, whether natural or man-made.

Justin Gibbs, Hyde County’s Emergency Management Director, also received notification and reported Hyde County was ready. Assuming that Vidant lives up to this death knell, Hyde County EMS plans to revisit the funding request for a second ambulance. This request had previously been cut during the budget negotiations.

If Vidant’s letter had not been delivered by Federal Express, it might have been suspect. There was no return address, just the Vidant logo. There were no other Vidant officials copied, nor were any Hyde County or Beaufort County officials.

Those familiar with Vidant’s efforts to close this 60-year-old hospital believe Herman might rue the day at some point in the future. If the absence of an Emergency Department in Belhaven contributes to the death of some poor soul — who doesn’t survive the precious time afforded in the Golden Hour – some family member or loved one will remind Herman of the role Vidant played.

The projected closing set for July 1 looms. In response to a question, Herman’s demeanor changed when he answered “Pungo belongs to the LLC,” which remains Vidant’s well-honed exit strategy. “We are out of there come 12:01 a.m. on July 1st,” he added.

It was so easy to blame all of the angst and worry on the Managers of Pantego Creek, LLC or on Adam O’Neal, Belhaven’s gutsy mayor.

The sad irony of Herman’s last words was his choice to end the meeting by explaining the importance of having an “End of Life Care Plan.

That did not go over well with the residents who depend on Pungo Hospital, although Herman gave no signal that he sensed the irony of his remarks.

Has Vidant underestimated the determination and strength that drives and sustains our local people on a daily basis? Give up? Don’t know the meaning of that phrase.

NAACP butts heads with Vidant over closing of Belhaven hospital

By Betty Murphy | Staff Writer

BELHAVEN — The April 1st closing date for Vidant Pungo Hospital is rapidly approaching.

In January, the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP filed a Title VI civil rights lawsuit against Greenville-based Vidant Health. After weeks of failed attempts to find a solution, the NAACP officials issued the following statement:

“The Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has accepted our complaint, and has initiated its investigation. It has also brought in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service, to see whether mediation might be useful in this dispute. The CRS has contacted us, and it will be setting up some initial discussions between the parties.  We anticipate we will be meeting within the next week or so. We will have no other comments on this until after the mediation is completed.”

Rev. William BarberLast week, Rev. William Barber, president of the NAACP’s state chapter, and NAACP attorneys met in closed sessions with their counterparts from Vidant. Both sides used a vague, fuzzy reference to ‘conversations’ in describing what most believe were hard-hitting negotiations.

“We met today for conversation. We had a good conversation and we’ll have conversations in the future,” said a tight-lipped Dr. David Herman, the Chief Executive Officer of Vidant.

“We’ve had some very serious, very strong conversation and hermanvery open conversation,” said Rev. Dr. William Barber, NC NAACP President. “We are still quite hopeful about these conversations and where they may lead, and at this time to make our commitment to mediation, we cannot discuss those matters.”

A letter from U.S. Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) also exerted pressure. Hagan urged Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to bring all parties together “to negotiate a voluntary resolution that would preserve access to emergency health services.”

U.S. Senator Kay Hagan

Kay Hagan letter

Those with first hand knowledge said Wednesday that the two sides have reached an agreement, the details of which are to be released Thursday, March 27.

Although these negotiations may have changed the status quo, here is the way things stand as of press time for The County Compass newspaper:

Pungo will lose its status as a Critical Access Hospital if replaced by a clinic with no emergency room services. An urgent care clinic does not include intensive care nor the ability to stabilize in case of heart attack, stroke or trauma significantly compromising the victims’ chances of survival.

Pungo Hospital’s service area covers eastern Beaufort County and Hyde County. In September, Belhaven residents were stunned to hear of the planned closing.

Only two years earlier, board members of the hospital – then known as Pungo District Hospital –entered into a Confidentiality Agreement (commonly known as a ‘gag order’) with Greenville-based University Health Systems (subsequently re-named Vidant) to develop and negotiate sale of the hospital.

At the end of these negotiations there were three parties involved in the acquisition of the hospital: UHS/Vidant, Pungo District Hospital Corp. and Pantego Creek, LLC The latter entity was created to protect the financial interests of its 106 members – many of whom are descendants of those who pooled resources almost 60 years ago in a successful effort to create the town’s hospital.

As part of the due diligence process, Vidant confirmed Pungo District Hospital was losing money and stated that with better management finances would improve. Vidant also became aware of the hospital’s location well within a flood zone.

Under Vidant’s management the financial picture did not improve. This came as no surprise to Belhaven residents, as the Vidant employee charged with management responsibilities only visited Pungo District Hospital for half a day each week.

With regard to Vidant’s concerns about the flood zone, the entire area is in a flood zone. However, in 60 years Pungo Hospital has never flooded.

Last year, the three entities entered into secret negotiations, resulting in an agreement to permanently close Pungo Hospital. This time the secrecy was so tight, even the Belhaven Mayor, Town Manager and the Beaufort County Commissioners were kept in the dark. There had been no open communication or discussion to explore other options, even though the closing of Pungo Hospital would have far-reaching financial effects to the County Budget and the Town of Belhaven.

Pantego Creek, LLC’s acquiescence in the deal ensured that a new Vidant clinic, proposed to replace the hospital, would not offer emergency room services needed to save a heart attack or stroke victim.

Early on, state Sen. Bill Cook, state House Rep. Paul Tine and U.S. Congressman Walter Jones, Jr. wrote letters to Vidant Health pleading for an emergency room in Belhaven.

Healthcare facilities are dependent upon both state and federal funds. Facilities found to be in noncompliance with state and/or federal regulations face possible loss of such funds.

Insiders familiar with Vidant, say the medical behemoth’s lack of good boardroom manners is legendary — a corporate culture characterized by refusal to compromise, failure to communicate, being disrespectful, “take it or leave it attitude”, intimidation and retaliation. And, as one might expect, this type of posture does not always produce effective solutions.

Behind the scenes, Pantego Creek, LLC followed through with its decision to go along with Vidant’s plan to close the Hospital and eventually demolish the building at a projected cost of $800,000. The Hospital Campus is now the property of Pantego Creek, LLC. It remains to be seen what the future holds for this property.

A Transfer Agreement between Vidant Health, Pungo District Hospital Corp. and Pantego Creek, LLC seen by this newspaper, and effective March 17, 2014, reveals the following:

  • Vidant has often changed its plans for Belhaven. All along Vidant has said the new clinic would be built in 18 months. Now, more recent documents say Vidant and Pungo are to use their “best efforts to obtain a final Certificate of occupancy and commence operations no later than April 1, 2017.” Three years is twice as long as 18 months.
  • Over and over again, Vidant has tried to appease Belhaven and Hyde County residents and municipal leaders over their concerns about the operation of the Clinic. Vidant repeatedly has stated the New Facility will operate on a 24/7 basis.
  • The Transfer Agreement paints a different story. The New Facility “will initially operate on a 24/7 schedule for at least the first 36 months.” After that, operating hours may be changed as determined by Vidant – confirming Vidant’s reputation as that of a moving target.
  • And, if Vidant decides that it is not satisfied with the level of cooperation received from local governmental bodies, it may choose to construct the new facility elsewhere, if Vidant builds it at all. Instead of a New Facility located in the current environs of Belhaven, such a clinic might pop up far from the core of the Pungo District Hospital’s original service area.

Skeptical Belhaven residents say it’s not hard to imagine Vidant building this new clinic as far away as Hyde County. 

Increased travel time may well spell doom when Belhaven hospital closes

By Betty Murphy, News Analysis | Staff Writer

BELHAVEN — On Monday, Feb. 24, standing room only might have discouraged some, but not residents of this small community. This wasn’t the first meeting on the proposed closing of Pungo Hospital, and probably not the last. The first speaker was Dr. Charles Boyette (former medical director of the hospital, and nationally recognized) who gave an honest assessment of how Pungo Hospital has survived in the past and, with careful guidance, might well continue in the future.

With an occasional ‘amen’ interjected from the audience, one could feel the positive energy as the meeting progressed.

Pungo Hospital was originally privately owned and operated under the charter of Pungo District Hospital Corp. Founded and financed over 60 years ago by a group of citizens who saw the need for a rural hospital, the service area of the small facility evolved to cover more than 20,000 people in Beaufort and Hyde Counties.

After surviving one bankruptcy, the hospital was once again facing financial difficulties. At the same time — just 30 miles away — Beaufort County Hospital was in negotiations with Vidant Health. Following the lead of Beaufort County Hospital, Pungo’s Board of Directors approached Vidant and entered into a Confidentiality Agreement in January of 2011.

By the end of September 2011, Vidant Health had acquired both hospitals.

Before the Pungo Hospital deal could be finalized, the Pungo District Hospital Corp. established a Limited Liability Company to protect the investments of the entity’s 106 members. The new LLC was named Pantego Creek and the Pungo District Hospital Corp. (now owned by Vidant) was added to the membership, increasing the total to 107.

Pantego Creek LLC was formed to address any issues that might arise from Vidant’s compliance with the final agreement between the three parties: Vidant Health, Pungo District Hospital Corp. and Pantego Creek LLC.

This arrangement gave almost everyone a false sense of security, which ended abruptly on September 5, 2013, with an unexpected announcement by Vidant of its intent to close the renamed Vidant Pungo Hospital within in six months.

Apparently, Vidant put its plan in motion without giving notice to Belhaven municipal officials, Pantego Creek’s members, or even managers of the LLC.

One insider made a call to the state agency that grants Certificate of Need status to medical facilities, asking if agency officials were aware of this surprise action and if something could be done.

Vidant owns it and they can do anything they want to do,” was the curt response.

After months of failed attempts to communicate with Vidant Health, Belhaven officials concluded Vidant Health never intended to keep Pungo Hospital. Plans remain in tact to close the Belhaven facility on April 1.

In recent months, Belhaven officials and residents have become proactive, reaching out to Rural Community Hospitals of America. Following a presentation by RCHA — which offered some glimmer of hope — further open discussion was conducted to assess the numerous conditions, requirements, and needs to pursue such a path. Fortified with the unanimous vote by the town council members and the resounding support from citizens present at the town meeting, the next move for Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal was to present the plan to members of Pantego Creek LLC .

Pantego Creek managers set a membership meeting for Feb. 25 to consider the plans supported by the town people. O’Neal had planned a 15-minute presentation on the business plan voted on by the town people but he was only allowed three minutes. Since Mayor O’Neal is not a member of Pantego Creek LLC, he was asked to leave.

O’Neal and Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, stood at the door peacefully asking to be admitted – only to be told “this is a controlled meeting” and the door was shut.

Fortunately, this “behind closed doors” scene was captured on video by the Story of America, a non-profit organization, filming and documenting the efforts of a small rural town facing a life or death health crisis. The Story of America has posted coverage of the past six months on its website:

The meeting concluded with a majority vote of the members (78–24) “to decline the acquisition of Pungo Hospital and operating it as a hospital.”

In a letter dated Feb. 26, the four Pantego Creek LLC managers advised members of formal action to begin conveyance of the Vidant Pungo Hospital campus to the LLC.

The four managers of Pantego Creek LLC voted against RCHA’s management proposal, preferring to accept Vidant’s offer to convey the hospital property to the LLC, which portends demolition of all existing hospital buildings.

Nearby, Vidant Health has purchased 19-plus acres, ostensibly to build a health care clinic – without any type of emergency room. Residents of Belhaven and the surrounding area will soon face a dramatic increase in travel time to a full-fledged hospital.

For many, the chance of surviving a stroke or heart attack within the critical ‘Golden Hour’ may well time out.

‘Playing game where they hold all the cards’

News Analysis

By Betty Murphy | Special to the County Compass

Vidant Health, officially known as University Health Systems, is no stranger to closing rural medical facilities. Since 2010 Vidant Health has closed three medical clinics in the following counties: Dare, Pitt and Beaufort. Apparently these three clinics were not making enough money to satisfy Vidant.

Now Vidant is closing Pungo Hospital in Belhaven. Pungo was the last hospital acquired by Vidant in 2011 and now the first Vidant hospital to be shut down.

THEN (2010)

In 2010, Hatteras Medical Center (Dare) was one of two Vidant clinics located on the Outer Banks. Only 18 miles separated the Hatteras Clinic from the Avon Clinic but Hatteras Clinic was the closest clinic to Ocracoke Island residents. Living on an island reached only by ferry, a trip to Hatteras Clinic could take more than an hour (ferry runs every half hour in the summer and hourly in the winter). During the high season, both clinics experienced increased patient load.

In July of 2010, Vidant informed Dare County Officials that it was not financially feasible to continue operating both clinics. One had to go. But which one?

Among the choices offered by Vidant: Find a new health system or increase the subsidy payment to $300,000 to keep both clinics open. Even if one or both clinics continued, Vidant planned to reduce the facility’s after- hours nursing care.

Many discussions were held by Dare County officials and the general public as the months passed. Finally, Vidant announced that the Hatteras Clinic would be shut down by December 31, 2010.

This decision to close the Hatteras Clinic was puzzling to county officials and residents as Vidant was operating not only rent free, but the county was paying some utilities and upkeep.

The Hatteras Clinic was located on property owned by the National Park Service, deeded to Dare County years ago with the provision that if the property were ever used for anything other than health care, the land reverts back to the Park Service.

NOW (2014)

Hatteras residents did not give up. They formed a private, non-profit community based corporation. Their determination and hard work was rewarded last year. The new (non-Vidant) Hatteras Village Medical Center opened its doors in November 2013. Hats off to Hatteras residents!

THEN (2012)

In 2012, the only healthcare clinic located in Bethel (Pitt County) was closed on Sept. 1,2012. The Bethel Family Medicine Center was operated by the ECU Brody School of Medicine (BSOM), which is affiliated with Vidant. Due to an aging facility and other financial losses, operating the clinic was no longer profitable. ECU announced that closing the clinic would save them money.

To soften the blow, ECU relocated the doctor and three staff members to the new ECU Family Medicine Center in Greenville. For many patients the new facility might just have well been on the moon. ECU suggested that patients could use public transportation. Apparently the fact that there is no public transportation available to Bethel was overlooked. With a “Build it and they will come” attitude, how did ECU expect elderly patients to get there?

The new ECU Family Medicine Center opened September 2011 at an approximate cost of $38.1 million. More than $36 million was appropriated by the General Assembly. The new Family Medicine Center has 52 exam rooms plus another 12 exam rooms in the geriatric center. It has sports medicine, minor surgery, medical procedure and urgent care clinical areas. Administrative staff members also have offices at the center.

Vidant is playing a game where they hold all the cards. Their game rules change from one meeting to the next. They are consistently inconsistent. Vidant owns the game, writes the rules, and you can take it or leave it.

As a town, Bethel had been struggling to meet the needs of their residents. Like many rural towns in North Carolina, some residents have lived in Bethel their entire lives as did their ancestors. The majority of the clinic’s caseload are elderly, cannot drive, and cost of transportation is prohibitive.

With less than 90 days notice, Bethel residents banded together and swung into action holding town meetings and prayer vigils in an effort to stop the closing on Sept. 1, 2012. These Pitt county residents were left out in the cold.

NOW (2014)

The following year 2013 the town of Bethel reopened the town health clinic which is staffed by a team of non-Vidant employees from the Greenville Healthcare Center.

THEN (2011)

Innerbankx Urgent Care facility’s fate was determined by being too close (within walking distance) to Beaufort County Hospital. It was acquired along with the hospital. Almost all local physicians and their practices have been gobbled up by Vidant. Don’t bother to try to find the name of your physician on the roadside signage, all doctors’ names have been removed.

NOW (2014)

The building is now occupied by a Vidant physician.

Belhaven mayor lambastes Vidant over hospital closing

“Savage assault on health care in our town,” says O’Neal

By Adam O’Neal, Mayor, Town of Belhaven | Special to the County Compass

TBO-PAGE-23-PUNGO-PIC-1BELHAVEN — Recently, Vidant Health has been conducting a campaign to appear more community friendly, to the extent of airing a commercial on local TV during the Super Bowl. I believe this new effort is attempting to minimize damage to their public image created by their savage assault on health care in our town.

Our community has had a hospital for over 60 years and has always found a way to survive through good and bad times.  A couple of years ago our local hospital board was looking for a way to secure a solid foundation for our hospital in the coming years. Vidant was asked to look at our facility and determine if they would consider taking it over due to their tremendous resources.  Vidant told the community they were willing to take our hospital over and would, according to their agreement:  “SERVE TO MAINTAIN THE IDENTITY AND VIABILITY OF PUNGO DISTRICT HOSPITAL IN PUNGO’S SERVICE AREA; MAINTAIN AND STRENGTHEN PUNGO’S COMMITMENT TO THE COMMUNITY IN PROVIDING HEALTH CARE SERVICES WITHOUT REGARD TO ABILITY TO PAY.”

Less than two years after acquiring our hospital, I received a call from WITN-TV requesting comments on Vidant’s closing of our local hospital. I was shocked!  I originally thought a horrible mistake had been made. I then learned that Vidant had indeed decided to close our hospital with absolutely no notice to the communities they serve. They didn’t ask for any community assistance with issues at the hospital. There are two counties and several towns that rely heavily on the services provided at our hospital. I am certain our community would have worked with Vidant to remedy any problems they were having.

We have had meetings to explain the necessity of our hospital to Vidant. Our hospital serves people up to 70 miles away, and now those people will have another 30 miles to survive before emergency room care is available.  It saddens me to tell you Vidant has displayed absolutely no concern for the certainty that this extra 30-plus minutes will cause many deaths. They seem more concerned with financial issues than emergency medicine.

The Town of Belhaven now has a business plan prepared by experts that shows our hospital can break-even if run properly. The business plan was done after town officials expressed grave doubts about numbers Vidant shared in meetings concerning losses at our hospital.  The company who prepared the business plan asked Vidant if they would consider working with the community if shown a way for the hospital to be financially feasible.  VIDANT SAID THEY WOULD NOT BE INTERESTED IN WORKING WITH THE COMMUNITY AT ALL.

Lastly, Vidant came to our town of 1,700 people (plus a service area of 20,000 people) and they are trying to cut our heart out.  The want to close our biggest employer, shut down our largest town utility customer, and devastate the quality of our healthcare by removing our hospital and emergency room facility. All of this has been done without any communication with the community. They are also trying to divide our community with implied threats to leave our town with no healthcare if we don’t go along quietly. Does this sound like a community oriented organization?  I am writing this letter to ensure your community is aware of how Vidant does business. I do not want to see any more communities potentially ruined by the Vidant Health way of doing business.  An extra 30 minutes is a long time when you’re dying.