Future of health care dominates in 2010

Published 4:01 pm Friday, December 31, 2010

Contributing Writer

The editorial staff and readers of the Washington Daily News differed on nine of the top 10 stories of 2010. In the end, it was no surprise that only one issue was a unanimous choice for both: The financial crisis of the Beaufort Regional Health System was undoubtedly the dominant story in 2010.
The future of health care in Beaufort County remains uncertain and was the subject of much debate throughout the year as the BRHS Board of Commissioners tackled the system’s financial woes, faced a change in leadership and began negotiations with four potential partners.
Meanwhile, one county leader has said he doesn’t expect the BRHS board to make its recommendation on a possible affiliation with another health care system until mid-January, 2011, meaning the debate will continue into the new year.
In an interview with the Daily News in April 2010, then BRHS Chief Executive Officer Bill Bedsole said of the health system’s financial situation: “I would be the first to say we are struggling. It’s a fight for survival. That’s what we’re in right now, a fight for survival, and we have to decide how best to do that.”
Bedsole blamed the year-long downturn in the economy in part for the health system’s financial difficulties for the hospital as people in the community delayed medical treatments as part of their own cost-cutting measures, reducing the demand for hospital services.
That “fight for survival” led the health system’s board in January to begin a study of ways it could improve profitability, including the possible affiliation of the local hospital with a larger hospital — a move that is part of a national trend for hospitals of a size similar to the 142-bed Beaufort County Medical Center — and possible additional cost-cutting measures.
In April, facing mounting losses, the BRHS board, which oversees the operations of the Beaufort Regional Medical Center and its affiliated medical practices, hired HealthCare Appraisers Inc. of Delray Beach, Fla., a consulting firm, to help the health system plan its future operations — a plan that could include affiliation with another hospital system.
That same month, Bedsole announced that jobs for 16 BRHS employees – the equivalent of 12 full-time positions, or 2 percent of the health system’s staff – would be eliminated as part of an effort to cut about $1.8 million in costs from the health system’s $80 million budget.
Two months later, Bedsole tendered his resignation and, after giving his 100-day notice, was put on administrative leave. With that resignation, Bedsole forfeited a 20-percent salary bonus – reported to be in the $50,000 range – at the end of a one-year tenure in March 2011, according to news reports at the time. 
The BRHS board named Susan Gerard to head the health system’s operations following Bedsole’s resignation.
But heated debate over who should hold the health system’s helm led BRHS Board Chairman Edwin M. “Sandy” Hardy to relinquish the chairman’s post to Vice Chairman Alice Mills-Sadler.
In October, the BRHS board learned the results from its request for merger partners when HAI presented the board with five proposals for affiliation from four prospective suitors.
University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina, Community Health Systems Inc. of Franklin, Tenn., and LHP Hospital Group of Plano, Texas, presented lease or lease-purchase 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.
At two public hearings on the prospect of merger, an overwhelming majority of speakers favored affiliation with UHS and one CHS employee traveled from Spokane, Wash., to warn both the BRHS board and the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners that CHS would not live up to its promises.
At the close of 2010, a four-member negotiating committee was continuing talks with the four potential partners.
The negotiating committee will present its findings to the BRHS board. That board, in turn, will present its recommendations to the county commissioners.
And throughout the debate, Jerry Langley, chairman of the county board of commissioners was calling for calm and asking the community to “let the process work.”
Ultimately, it’s the county, which owns the building housing the Beaufort Regional Medical Center and its surrounding real estate, that will determine its future.
Reader’s No. 1 Choice: BRHS