Candidates discuss BCMC

Published 12:30 am Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Staff Writers

Reflecting the community at large, candidates for the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners are divided in their opinions concerning the future of Beaufort County Medical Center, formerly Beaufort County Hospital.
Most of those who responded to requests from the Daily News for interviews on the subject said the future of the hospital lies with some type of alignment with a larger health-care provider.
Incumbent Commissioners Al Klemm and Stan Deatherage, Republicans seeking re-election to the board, said earlier this week that a merger would ultimately be the best option for the hospital.
Incumbent Commissioner Ed Booth, a Democrat also seeking re-election, said merging of the hospital with another entity is inevitable.
Democratic challenger Jerry Evans, formerly a proponent of merger, said he now favors an independent track for the hospital.
Unaffiliated candidate Bertie Arnhols said she doesn’t have enough information about the hospital to have an opinion at this time.
Democrat Sonya Shamseldin and Republican Cindy Baldwin did not return telephone calls requesting interviews by the deadline for today’s edition.
Ultimately, any decision to merge the hospital with another health-care provider will have to be approved by the hospital’s governing body and the county Board of Commissioners. That process, including approval by various regulatory agencies, could take as long as 18 months, hospital officials have said.
Klemm is among the most vocal advocates of merging the hospital with another health-care provider, preferably University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina.
The question of the hospital’s future is “the most important issue” the Board of Commissioners has faced since he joined the board, Klemm said in an interview and in e-mails to his supporters.
Klemm said he hopes to see quality of care maintained and improved, the level of patient safety maintained and improved, the community’s perception of the hospital enhanced and the hospital continue to grow.
He sees a growing need for capital improvements and little money available for the hospital to meet those needs unless it aligns with a larger entity.
“Beaufort County Medial Center needs to merge with a nonprofit hospital, preferably with University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina, if an acceptable deal can be worked out,” he said.
Klemm said he would not necessarily seek a merger with the entity that offers county the most money, but the one that offers the best value and best fit that is consistent with the hospital’s mission.
“Once the merger takes place, we will have all the benefits of a profitable, modern well-managed medical organization. I believe it will grow and employment will increase. I believe we will be able to recruit the doctors the community needs,” he said. “It is true the sign will change, but the hospital will still be there.”
“It’s a business decision, and it needs to be a business decision, not a political decision,” he said. “I just want a hospital.”
Deatherage said he ultimately favors merging the hospital with other health-care system, but only if that merger is part of a two-track effort that includes cost-containment and revenue-enhancement measures.
Deatherage said he “would like to see the hospital join with other health-care providers to sue for better pay from the North Carolina state monopoly called Blue Cross/Blue Shield and sue for better payments from government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.”
“I support the two-track approach,” he said.
That includes, according to Deatherage, initiating cost-containment and controls needed “in all haste,” better management at the hospital and a concentrated effort directed at making the hospital more desirable to the people of Beaufort County.
Arnhols said she does not have enough information to make a definitive statement about the future of the medical center. Arnhols said she had requested information regarding how many patients use the medical center.
Arnhols, an Aurora resident, said many people who live in her area don’t take advantage of the medical center’s services.
“I don’t know anybody that goes there,” she said. “They go to New Bern. That’s where I go.”
She added that, once she receives the information she has requested, she’ll be in a better position to decide what steps the county commissioners should take to ensure the future prosperity of the hospital.
“The last thing we want is for (the hospital) to go away because somebody is certainly using it, and it makes sense — you’ve got to have a stop between Belhaven and Pitt (County Memorial Hospital),” she said.
Booth said, “The way I feel right now is there is going to be a merger. I feel strongly there is going to be a merger. My position that I’m going to take, and will always take, is that we’ve got to get the best deal that we can for the people of Beaufort County and the employees of the hospital.”
The commissioners will take into consideration the recommendation from the hospital board, but the final decision will rest with the county board, he said.
“We’re going to make sure we get the best decision for the employees, we’re going to get the best deal for the people of Beaufort County,” Booth said.
Booth wants to preserve as many jobs as possible and make sure the county gets the best care for its residents.
Evans said he has met with a commissioner from a county in the Piedmont area — he declined to name the county — and plans to visit an independent hospital in that county, with the same bed count as Beaufort County Medical Center, in the next week to 10 days.
“They are staying independent,” he said. “If it can be done here, the more I think about it and the more I research it, the more I actually like it.”
It’s unlikely anything will happen in the short term, Evans said.
“Everybody’s telling me no matter what you say, it’s going to be a nine-month to a year process,” he said.
Keeping the hospital independent “could save jobs and improve the hospital and save a lot of money,” he said. “I think it’s a positive thing because they are operating in the black.”