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Justice offers mediation — Vidant Health, NAACP could meet to negotiate Belhaven hospital matter

Published 7:36pm Monday, March 17, 2014

The U.S. Justice Department is willing to provide mediation between Vidant Health and the N.C. NAACP in regard to a Title VI complaint filed by the NAACP against Vidant Health in regard to its closing of Vidant Pungo Hospital, according to a Beaufort County commissioner.

It was unclear Monday when and where the mediation could take place.

Vidant Health has said it plans to close the hospital April 1.

“It’s my understanding the Justice Department ordered Vidant to mediate before they (those opposing the hospital’s closing) proceed with a lawsuit. Adam O’Neal called and told me that,” Commissioner Hood Richardson said Monday. “I had that over the weekend. My understanding that if Justice takes a case like this, once they decide there’s merit, they try to mediate. When they’re in mediation, they try to make sure the lawyers get paid and then they come out of it with something. If that doesn’t work, they go on to a lawsuit.”

O’Neal, Belhaven’s mayor, says the Justice Department’s decision came at an opportune time.

“I think it is an opportunity for Vidant to come to the table and really study the community’s needs and try to fill them. The basic needs of the community are at least an emergency room. We want our hospital,” O’Neal said Monday. “There is no way we can settle for anything less than an emergency room. It’s a matter of life and death.”

O’Neal said he hopes Vidant Health puts Pantego Creek LLC in a “position where success is extremely likely or that they will themselves rethink this issue and decide come do the right thing and make Belhaven a PR bonanza for themselves.”

Roger Robertson, president of Vidant Community Hospitals, issued this statement by email Monday afternoon: “Vidant Health has been and remains open to discussing its plans for the continued provision of health care services for the residents of eastern Beaufort and Hyde counties.”

The Justice Department’s Community Relations Services offered to mediate if the N.C. NAACP and Vidant Health are willing to discuss seeking an amicable solution to the situation. The offer comes on the heels of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners offering $2 million — if specific conditions are met — to the effort to save Belhaven’s hospital.

The Title VI complaint, filed Jan. 7, alleges, on the part of Vidant Health, “a continuing pattern of deception and discrimination.” The complaint lists blacks (African-Americans), Hispanics (Latinos) and American Indians (or Alaska natives) as groups of people being discriminated against. Joining Bill Booth, president of the Beaufort County chapter of the NAACP, as complainants are the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, and Michael Adams, present of the Hyde County NAACP.

“Presidents Adams and Booth believe the actions of Respondent Vidant shall lead directly to the deaths of several of their Branch’s families and friends,” reads the complaint filed with the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Region 4 offices in Atlanta.

The complaint addresses Vidant Health’s decision to close the Belhaven hospital.

“When it made this decision, Vidant knew its acts would cause premature deaths of infants and other poor people of color,” reads the complaint.

The complaint asks the federal government, if Vidant Health refuses to stop efforts to close the hospital and enter into negotiations concerning providing certain health-care services to Belhaven-area residents, to “turn off the faucet on the federal fund pipe that flows to Vidant’s bank account.”

“Complainants demand their tax money not be used to finance discriminatory practices that cause premature deaths of infants and other people,” reads the complaint.

One of the county’s conditions regarding providing the $2 million is that money would go to a new entity that would take ownership and manage the hospital, provided Pantego Creek LLC deeds the hospital property to the new entity. Pantego Creek LLC has five managing members (four are active and one recently resigned) and represents the former membership of Pungo District Hospital Corp. Because Pungo District Hospital was a private corporation, a third group, Pantego Creek LLC, was created to protect the interests of the former membership corporation after Vidant Health took over the hospital.

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