Candidates are divided on hospital

Published 10:36 pm Thursday, October 14, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This begins coverage of the Washington Daily News candidates forum.
Concerns about the future of Beaufort County Medical Center figured prominently in the Washington Daily News candidates forum Tuesday night.
The first question of the night was, “What, if anything, can the (Beaufort County) commissioners do to help Beaufort County Medical Center get on a more solid financial footing?”
To determine who would answer the question in what order, the six commissioner candidates’ names were drawn at random during their portion of the forum.
Jerry Evans, a Washington Democrat and the first candidate whose name was drawn, said he had “done a lot of research” on the hospital issue.
Evans said he had visited an independent, nonprofit hospital comparable to Beaufort County Medical Center.
“I’ve looked at their numbers; they’ve looked at our numbers,” he said.
Focusing on his assessment of the chances that Beaufort Regional Health System will stay independent rather than merge with another health-care entity, Evans said, “I hate to say it, but it’s an uphill battle.”
Evans acknowledged he had favored keeping BRHS independent.
“I was all for it, but doing the research and looking at the debt services that’s on the current hospital, I don’t think that’s the way we need to go,” he said.
The hospital faces a mandated, $2.5 million software upgrade, Evans said, apparently referring to a federal requirement to update medical-records systems.
Hospital documents show an anticipated cost of $3.5 million to $5 million for electronic health records implementation.
BCMC also must carry out around $20 million in upgrades overall, Evans said.
BRHS has identified capital needs including improvements in the emergency department and other areas, according to a request for proposals the health system sent out to solicit potential merger partners.
“I think it’s great to have a hospital here to call our own, but if you want first-class health care, I’m afraid the only way to go is to merge with a not-for-profit like (University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina),” Evans concluded.
Sonya Shamseldin, a Democrat from the Pinetown area, said the county has “spent a lot of money on this process already.”
She referred to $4.2 million the commissioners authorized borrowing to purchase properties owned by BRHS.
The commissioners approved borrowing $4.8 million to buy the properties, according to county documents.
“You know, we own the hospital,” Shamseldin remarked, “and right now the county commissioners … we need to … see how well they can cut costs and see how well that hospital can survive as a private entity. But we need to make a decision soon.”
She added, “My worry is the jobs, and my worry is the care. I want to see more about it.”
Ed Booth, the Democratic incumbent from Washington, declined to talk about the debt the county incurred as the commissioners sought to alleviate the hospital’s financial crisis by buying the properties mentioned earlier.
“What the commissioners can do is do all we can to get the debt service (off) the people of Beaufort County, regardless of what it takes to get it done,” Booth said. “I am pledged to do that. Some say merge with (UHS), merge with this one. We don’t know who we’re going to merge with yet. But I promise you, as a commissioner, we will get the best deal for the people of Beaufort County.”
The commissioners want to save local health-care jobs and the hospital, he declared.
“But the question we have to ask ourselves is can we afford it?” Booth queried. “No, we can’t afford it with the inflation like it is.”
Stan Deatherage, a Republican incumbent from Washington, said the commissioners “have done what we needed to do to get ahold of that hospital.”
The county owns the hospital, Deatherage pointed out, evidently referencing the county’s ownership of hospital buildings, including those housing affiliated medical practices.
“That means we will have final say in what happens to that hospital,” Deatherage observed.
Whatever the commissioners decide on this issue, they can’t make that decision behind closed doors, he asserted.
“We will protect that hospital for the people, and we will get the very best deal we can get,” Deatherage said. “We’ll get the best health care and the best deal, if we merge. Now, I also think we can save that hospital. We can cut the pain, the bleeding that that hospital is doing, just by simple management.”
Al Klemm, an incumbent Republican from the Washington area, called the hospital’s troubles “the most important issue I have faced as a Beaufort County commissioner.”
“What we want in Beaufort County is quality health care, and we do indeed have a catastrophe at Beaufort County hospital,” Klemm said.
Klemm said he attended a BRHS Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday, and he learned the hospital’s losses in August were $1,399,000, “with adjustments from earlier months.”
A financial report aired during that meeting showed the totality of these losses didn’t occur in August, but were accumulated over a period of months, as Klemm implied.
BCMC’s year-to-date loss is $3.4 million, he said.
“The operating cash is now dangerously low, even with the money that was borrowed,” Klemm commented.
He said he favors a merger with UHS.
“We already partner with them,” Klemm said.
Recalling the question, Bertie Arnhols, the unaffiliated candidate from Aurora, said the commissioners should “get out of the way.”
“On every one of them’s watch this occurred,” Arnhols said. “It did not happen in one year, two years or three years or four years. Hold them accountable. Do not let them have control or any say in what happens to this hospital.”
Because the county owns the hospital, the commissioners must lend final approval or denial to any form of merger favored by the BRHS board, officials have reported.
Arnhols said the hospital’s utilization rates need to be examined.
“Pantego township rarely ever utilizes this hospital,” she said. “Something’s wrong. Richland township hardly ever utilizes this hospital. Something’s wrong. I don’t have to be in the health-care industry to know that.”
The hospital’s market share from “the five zip codes that make up the majority of its business (i.e., Washington, Chocowinity, Williamston, Belhaven and Bath),” declined from 39 percent to 30 percent “for the quarters ended September 30, 2009 and 2008, respectively,” reads the request for proposals released by BRHS.
All county residents use the hospital’s emergency room, Arnhols stated.
“Let’s talk about that and what we can do to improve that,” she said.
For more coverage of the forum, see a future edition.
Staff Writer Betty Mitchell Gray contributed to this article.