Most commissioners mum on BRHS partner

Published 9:38 am Saturday, December 4, 2010

Staff Writer

Five of the seven Beaufort County commissioners declined to say which of four possible suitors they would prefer as a merger or management partner with Beaufort Regional Health System.
In their replies to questions from the Daily News, some of the commissioners criticized each other for being too free with their opinions as the BRHS Board of Commissioners weighs the suitors’ proposals.
The BRHS board will vote on a possible merger partner but, because the county owns the hospital, the commissioners will have final approval over any merger agreement.
Jerry Langley, the commissioners’ chairman, criticized certain members of his board for speaking out before the BRHS board has named its choice.
Langley indirectly referred to Commissioners Al Klemm and Jay McRoy, who have advocated a merger with Greenville-based University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina.
McRoy and Klemm were the only two commissioners willing to endorse a suitor.
“To me, I think it wasn’t a wise decision for one commissioner to favor one entity over another before the process was complete,” Langley said. “I say they kind of buried themselves.”
Langley would not commit to any of the suitors, saying he preferred to let the BRHS board’s work conclude before commenting on a merger.
“If a vote was held today, I wouldn’t favor anybody because I don’t know enough about the negotiations,” he said.
A healthy marriage?
In his interview, McRoy was forthcoming about his favored suitor.
“There’s no doubt I’d have to support UHS because the problem with the local health care system is the reimbursements,” he said. “The UHS, their reimbursement rates are much higher than they are locally because they have more bargaining power.”
McRoy said the UHS-run Pitt County Memorial Hospital has a higher reimbursement rate on billing with, for example, Medicaid.
He said the BRHS-run Beaufort County Medical Center’s reimbursement rate is about 65 percent, while PCMH’s reimbursement rate is around 90 percent.
McRoy’s reimbursement figure for Beaufort County’s hospital “is a very reasonable estimate,” Pam Shadle, spokeswoman for BCMC, said in response to a Daily News query.
According to Beth Anne Atkins, spokeswoman for PCMH, the Greenville hospital’s reimbursement rate is approximately 90 percent for Medicaid.
If UHS acquired Beaufort County Medical Center, the local hospital’s reimbursement rate more than likely wouldn’t change, Atkins related.
McRoy said Beaufort County’s hospital has around 130 beds, and added PCMH is “at capacity now” and could use Beaufort County’s unused beds for heart and trauma patients.
The Washington hospital is filling just 20 to 30 beds at any given time, and the patient census has been in the low 20s lately, he asserted.
Beaufort County’s hospital is licensed for 142 beds, 22 of which are psychiatric beds, said Shadle.
PCMH, an 861-bed facility, is “a tertiary care” hospital, meaning its patients are “basically the sickest of the sick,” according to Atkins.
PCMH treats major trauma patients from its 29-county area, she said. The hospital’s staff prefers that less seriously ill patients be treated as close to home as possible, she clarified.
“Some days we are at capacity, some days we’re not at capacity,” Atkins stated.
McRoy said the Washington hospital employs something on the order of 800 workers, full-time and part-time.
“And we need those people to have jobs,” he iterated. “With the economy like it is now, we can’t afford people to get laid off.”
Shadle confirmed the hospital has around 800 employees.
McRoy said UHS has maintained or added employees at other hospitals in its stable.
“We have not gone in and done any layoffs,” Atkins agreed.
Klemm’s assessment of UHS was similar to McRoy’s.
“I’d favor University Health Systems because they are our local regional hospital health organization,” he said. “And two, because we partner with them all the time.”
Beaufort County’s magnetic resonance imaging machine is “here solely because of a certificate of need agreement between us and Pitt County,” Klemm asserted.
Atkins confirmed PCMH and BCMC launched a joint venture for an MRI machine.
‘No comment’
Commissioner Hood Richardson declined to comment on the proposed merger.
Richardson, also secretary of the hospital board, is one of four members of the BRHS negotiating team.
The team consists of the board’s executive committee plus one: Alice Mills Sadler, board chairwoman, Dr. Brenda Peacock, vice chairwoman, Richardson and Suzanne Gray.
Like the other county commissioners, Richardson was asked whether he was aware of any conflicts of interest related to a merger vote by the county board or the BRHS board.
“I’m not aware (of any), let’s put it that way,” he said. “I know some people have formed some early opinions without knowing anything, but being stupid is not a requirement for service on a board.”
All of the commissioners said they had no knowledge of any conflicts of interest tied to the coming hospital vote.
Langley acknowledged Sadler is a distant cousin, but said he doesn’t see that family connection or her service on the BRHS board as constituting a conflict of interest.
Attempts to reach Sadler for comment were unsuccessful.
Commissioner Robert Cayton also wouldn’t commit to one suitor over another.
“I have not said anything about who I would or would not vote for because the process has got to work,” Cayton said.
Explaining that process, Cayton said the BRHS board’s negotiating committee must make a recommendation to the full hospital board. In turn, the BRHS board will review proposals and forward its findings to the commissioners.
“It would be unfair of me to circumvent the process,” Cayton commented.
Asked about his priorities in any potential merger, Cayton said his first priority was “the best possible health care” for county residents.
Cayton revealed that most of the input he has heard or seen suggests the majority of county residents favor UHS. He hearkened back to a public hearing held to solicit input on the future of the hospital.
“Based upon the public hearing, the majority of the citizens of Beaufort County that have spoken out,” he said, “they want to go with Pitt County.”
Commissioner Stan Deatherage took much the same line as Cayton when asked which partner he would prefer.
“I have purposely not looked at any of the bids since this is not the purview of the commissioners yet,” Deatherage declared. “I do know that some commissioner candidates — even one sitting commissioner, Al Klemm — used it as a campaign ploy. That was wrong. I’m going to do exactly what is proper in this bid process, which is to allow the hospital board to examine the bids and make a decision. Then, as a commissioner, I will review that decision.”
Commissioner Ed Booth echoed Deatherage.
“I have tried to let the process work with our hospital board, and I can’t stand here and lie to you and tell you I don’t have a preference today, but I would have to give a preference today, because I don’t want to cloud the process we have,” Booth stated.
Booth implied he would lean toward UHS if it offered more money for the hospital.
“If the closest one with us, that already works with us, if they came a little closer to the dollar amount I’m looking at, that’s where I would go,” he said.
For more results of the Daily News’ research on this issue, see future editions.