UHS closing Hatteras clinic|Editor’s note: This story continues the Daily News’ research on the suitors that could forge new relationships with Beaufort Regional Health System. A past article examined an issue surrounding Community Health Systems of F

Published 2:57 pm Sunday, December 26, 2010

betty@wdnweb.com, jonathan@wdnweb.com
Daily News Staff

University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina is closing a clinic on Hatteras Island.
UHS will shut down HealthEast Family Care by Dec. 31, said Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County commissioners.
The commissioners, and a number of residents, opposed the closure, according to Judge.
“Our access to health care is going to be challenged,” he said.
UHS is one of four suitors exploring lease, management or other possible agreements with the cash-strapped Beaufort Regional Health System.
“UHS decided in November to close the Hatteras clinic within 60 to 90 days,” UHS spokesman Jimmy Ryals said in an e-mailed statement. “For several years, expenses have outpaced revenues at the clinic by between $400,000 and $500,000 each year.”
UHS has two clinics on the Outer Banks, the Hatteras facility and HealthEast Family Care-Avon, Ryals related.
“Consistent economic losses in the Avon clinic drove our decision,” he wrote. “As noted above, the system lost $400,000 to $500,000 annually in running the clinic.”
The clinics are located around 15 to 18 miles apart, said Bobby Outten, Dare County manager.
“Combined, the two clinics see between 11,500 and 13,000 people per year,” Ryals wrote in his responses to e-mailed questions.
“UHS and the Dare County commissioners began discussing options for providing medical care to Hatteras Island,” Ryals noted. “Among those options was a scenario in which the county would contribute $300,000 to the cost of running the clinics, enabling UHS to keep both facilities open.”
The county had been paying about $100,000 in subsidies for the clinic, in part to cover after-hours care, Outten said.
According to Outten, UHS gave the county three choices: find another health care provider; pay $300,000 in subsidies and still see a reduction in after-hours nursing care; or continue paying the $100,000 subsidy with a reduction in after-hours nursing care.
After a series of negotiations, UHS essentially said, “There is no real negotiation,” Outten stated.
“If you go from their perspective, it was — certainly by their records and what they showed us — they didn’t think they could afford to keep two clinics open,” the county manager said. “From our perspective, we need access to health care, and that’s what they do.”
The county owns the building that houses the Hatteras clinic, and doesn’t charge UHS rent, Outten pointed out.
The community is working to find a health care provider to fill the clinic, he said.
“We couldn’t understand if you had a free facility, and you were going to keep the same number of doctors and the same number of staff, why they were going to close the facility,” he said.
Outten said the community was satisfied with the quality of care provided by UHS, but indicated the closure of the clinic was unwelcome.
“It certainly wasn’t a change that we were looking for or that the community was looking for,” he remarked.
Judge, the commissioners’ chairman, also iterated the community’s satisfaction with the quality of care given by UHS.
He was asked whether he believed the health care entity had made the right decision when it elected to shutter the Hatteras clinic.
“The right decision for them and the right decision for Dare County may be at odds with each other,” Judge commented. “We certainly appreciate everything UHS has done for us in the past. … They’re doing a wonderful job as a partner in the (Outer Banks Hospital) here in Dare County, but we are very disappointed that we’re losing the choice of the second clinic on Hatteras Island to serve the population down there. Granted, the physical distance is only a matter of miles, depending on where you live in the village, but you go from two clinics operating each day to one, so access is going to be decreased.”
He added, “We don’t know the medicine business. On paper, I guess they think they can serve us at the same level. In the real world, as patients and people that use the services, we’re skeptical of that.”
The area served by the Hatteras clinic has a year-round population of approximately 5,000, but the population expands to 50,000 or 75,000 on a typical tourist day at the height of summer, Judge said.
Tourists and year-round residents on Hatters will have to traverse extra miles to get to the other clinic, he observed.
Judge acknowledged the Hatteras clinic issue doesn’t make for an apples-to-apples comparison with the situation in Beaufort County, where the year-round population is much larger than Dare County’s.
He did offer some advice to the Beaufort County commissioners, who will lend final approval to any agreement with a BRHS suitor.
He said the commissioners should ask the suitors what their commitment will be when the bottom line is strained.
“If UHS called us up tomorrow and said, ‘We’re unequivocally going to keep two clinics going and we’re never going to worry you about this again,’ we’d welcome them with open arms,” Judge concluded.
Two Beaufort County commissioners, Al Klemm and Jay McRoy, openly support UHS as a future partner for the local medical system. Other commissioners have declined to express a preference or have said they haven’t made up their minds.
McRoy and Klemm, along with other community leaders, say Greenville-based UHS is better positioned to serve the community than other providers because of its proximity to Washington, where the medical center is located, and an existing relationship with BRHS.
Most of the Beaufort County residents who have spoken out on the hospital’s future in public meetings have favored UHS.