Negotiations with suitors will begin

Published 1:38 am Friday, October 29, 2010

Staff Writer

The Beaufort Regional Health System Board of Commissioners is ready to begin negotiations with three suitors over the future of health care in Beaufort County, board Chairwoman Alice Mills Sadler said Thursday.
A four-member committee, comprised of two members of the BRHS board and two members of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners will lead the negotiations and report its findings to the BRHS board, Sadler said in an interview after an hour-long closed door session.
Sadler said she would appoint the two BRHS board members to the committee early next week and ask Jerry Langley, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, to appoint two members.
While negotiations are taking place, some BRHS employees will see their salaries reduced by 5 percent.
The BRHS board voted 8-1 to approve a 90-day salary deferral for BRHS employees making more than $10 an hour. It asked its employees who work under contract — including doctors and some professional staff — to take a voluntary 5 percent deferral.
Those employees making $10 or less an hour would not be subject to the deferral.
Board member Edwin M. “Sandy” Hardy cast the sole dissenting vote.
At the end of the 90-day period, the salaries will be restored and the lost wages could be paid to those employees subject to the deferral, according to board member Dr. Brenda Peacock.
“Ideally they will get the money back,” she said.
BRHS Chief Executive Officer Susan Gerard said, in an interview after the meeting, that she would volunteer to accept the 5 percent deferral and would take an additional 5 percent salary cut for 90 days.
In addition to her duties as CEO, Gerard continues to serve as director of the 21 medical practices affiliated with BRHS.
In related business, the board approved Gerard’s contract as CEO, but it did not release her salary, citing privacy laws governing its release.
The BRHS board meeting came one day after a public hearing on the fate of the local health-care system during which most of the speakers said they favored an alliance with Greenville-based University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina.
The best provider of “stable, long-term quality health care” for the people of Beaufort County lies just 22 miles down road, according to most of the speakers at a public hearing on the future of health care in Beaufort County.
“We need you to guarantee, in the next few weeks, the people of Beaufort County stable, long-term quality health care,” Washington Park Mayor Tom Richter told the members of the Beaufort Regional Health System Board of Commissioners and the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday.
Like most of the 22 speakers at the hearing, Richter urged members of the two boards to accept the merger proposal of Greenville-based University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina.
Meanwhile, one member of the BRHS board said he hoped to convince Community Health Systems “to return to the table” and continue its merger discussions with the local health system.
BRHS board member and county Commissioner Hood Richardson said in an interview after the meeting that he will work to “keep the door open to CHS … to try to keep them in the game.”
Just hours before the public hearing, CHS, one of the four BRHS suitors, announced it was withdrawing its offer for a 30-year lease of the local health system in consideration of a prepaid lease payment of $30 million.
The final speaker Wednesday, Mary Robinson, traveled from Spokane, Wash., to caution against that proposal.
Robinson, a central-service technician at Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane, told the two boards that CHS had not lived up to the promises made when it took over the operation of that hospital.
Despite assurances to the contrary, CHS closed that hospital’s Parkinson Clinic and Trauma Center and cut its staff, she said.
“It’s important that people know this story and not let this happen here,” she said.
Austin Smithwick, president of the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce and the first speaker at the hearing, set the tone for many of the comments that followed when he said the chamber favored a merger with UHS.
“The chamber believes partnering with a larger entity is the best step,” he said. “Ownership of the hospital is not nearly as important as the quality of health care.
“The chamber support for UHS is firm.”
While county leaders said they will take comments like Smithwick’s into consideration as they begin their deliberations over the future of the local health system, they also said they would like to hear from a more diverse group of people than those who attended the hearing.
One of those was Jerry Langley, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, the group who will ultimately decide the fate of the local medical center.
“We heard from the medical community and the community leaders tonight,” he said in an interview after the hearing. “But I would love to hear from those folks you never hear anything from. We just need to hear from everybody.”
BRHS board Chairwoman Alice Mills Sadler echoed Langley’s remarks in an interview with the Washington Daily News saying that while the board will take seriously the opinions expressed at the public hearing, she would like to hear from “the part of the community that has not been heard.”
Of speakers at the public hearing, eight were doctors or members of the BRHS staff, all of whom spoke in favor of merging with UHS. 
Several people who spoke Wednesday in favor of the UHS proposal also spoke in favor of UHS at a public hearing held Aug. 31.
Commissioner Al Klemm said he had heard enough and continued to agree that a merger with UHS is in the best interest of Beaufort County.
“The people have spoken,” Klemm said after the hearing. “I heard them a long time ago.”
And while stopping short of favoring one of the merger proposals now before the BRHS board, Commissioner Ed Booth agreed that “the day of the independent hospital is over.”
After receiving comments from the public, the BRHS board planned to meet Thursday to establish a schedule for negotiations with the three prospective suitors whose four offers remain on the table.
UHS and LHP Hospital Group of Plano, Texas, presented lease offers. LHP Hospital Group and Brim Healthcare of Brentwood, Tenn., presented alternative proposals that would either create some type of joint venture with BRHS or establish a management-services arrangement.
Despite overwhelming support Wednesday night for the UHS proposal, two speakers had concerns about the possible merger.
“The easy way out would be to accept the UHS proposal as submitted. It would be a popular choice with most of the staff,” said John Murphy of Washington. “But their bid has a least one fatal, damning flaw. At the end of the term of their lease, they would require us to turn over ownership and control of the hospital to them for no further consideration. I find that unacceptable, and I hope you, the decision-makers, do as well.”
Saying she was “a lone voice crying in this wilderness,” Velma Hickman of Blounts Creek said she hoped the BRHS board would find a way to keep BRHS independent.
“I want our hospital to become solvent, and I want it to remain ours,” she said.