Board barraged by BRHS comments

Published 5:58 pm Sunday, January 9, 2011

Daily News Staff

They’re not going away quietly.
Since Monday’s decision by the Beaufort Regional Health System’s Board of Commissioners to recommend affiliation with Community Health Systems, Beaufort County Commissioner Ed Booth has been answering his telephone with the greeting, “Hello, you’re (caller) number (add appropriate number).”
Commissioner Al Klemm said he has charged his cell phone three times since Monday.
A recent dinner at Commissioner Robert Cayton’s house was interrupted every five or 10 minutes by callers.
That’s because Booth, Klemm and Cayton, like most other members of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, have been bombarded with telephone calls and e-mails about the future of the financially troubled BRHS.
Over the next few weeks, the county commissioners will decide whether to accept or reject the 5-4 recommendation by the BRHS board to approve a 30-year lease with CHS in exchange for $30 million.
Most of the calls and e-mails are urging the commissioners to reject the BRHS board’s recommendation, most of the commissioners said in interviews conducted Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
The vast majority of those contacting these county leaders say they prefer the 30-year lease/purchase offer made by Greenville-based University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina that was endorsed by four BRHS board members.
The commissioners agreed this is probably the most emotionally-charged issue facing the county in recent history.
It was unclear whether these contacts by the public were part of an organized effort or if they represented a spontaneous response to recent events.
“This is a trying time for Beaufort County,” Booth said.
Booth recorded 88 telephone callers to his home as of Thursday morning, 83 of whom hoped the county would ultimately accept the UHS offer, and three of whom supported the CHS offer.
“Believe it or not, it’s been helpful,” Booth said, reporting that the last telephone call he received came at 11 p.m. Wednesday. “I’m going to do what’s right for the people of Beaufort County.”
Jerry Langley, chairman of the county commissioners, said that he has received telephone calls on the issue as well, though he hasn’t been keeping count. Although most of his callers have supported an affiliation with UHS, some have supported the CHS offer.
“I just listen and thank them for calling,” Langley said.
Commissioner Hood Richardson said he has heard comparatively little from his followers.
Richardson also is a BRHS board member, and he’s one of the five hospital commissioners who voted in favor of having BRHS affiliate with CHS.
Of four possible suitors, CHS offered the most money to partner with the local health system that oversees Beaufort County Medical Center and its affiliated facilities.
“What I’m hearing from my constituents is not very much,” Richardson said, “and those that I’m talking to are saying that it looks like the CHS deal is the best thing to do for the county because of the financial consideration and the health care consideration.”
He said he’s probably had 10 contacts a day from his constituents, half of them in person, the other half by phone.
Most of these constituents conclude CHS is the better choice “when they understand what the financial arrangement is,” Richardson contended.
He added he’s also had calls from people who aren’t his constituents “that are frankly very irrational.” He didn’t elaborate on that point.
Asked whether the amount of feedback he’s received on this issue trumps responses to other issues he has dealt with as a commissioner, Richardson responded by criticizing the Daily News.
“I think that the Washington Daily News is very irresponsible as a newspaper because you’re only giving one side of this story,” he said. “You’re ruining your reputation in the community, what you had left.”
Other commissioners painted different pictures about what they’re hearing and seeing from voters.
Commissioner Jay McRoy has gone on record as supporting the proposed deal with UHS. McRoy reported receiving telephone calls and e-mails from across the county.
“I’ve gotten telephone calls every five or 10 minutes from all over the county,” McRoy said. “Ninety percent of them have been average folks, people who are concerned about their health care, and every one of them is saying the same thing: ‘We want UHS.’”
Most commissioners have said they make an effort to return every telephone call and respond to every e-mail they receive.
But it’s not just the county’s elected leaders who are being inundated by telephone calls.
The county’s administrative offices have received a steady stream of calls about the issue since Monday.
Most commissioners report that those who have telephoned or e-mailed them have been very polite.
One commissioner said those residents who did not vote for him are wasting their time.
“I have heard from people who do not vote for me. I haven’t heard from my constituents,” said Commissioner Stan Deatherage. “If you didn’t vote for me, then you’re not going to get far with me.”
Cayton said he’s had “overwhelmingly more feedback on this one issue than I’ve had in the seven years I’ve been a Beaufort County commissioner.”
“It’s hard to say how many calls, but I will say they have been consistent (Tuesday and Wednesday),” he said.
Cayton estimated he’d had in-person or telephone contact with 150 people from every part of the county.
According to Cayton, the majority of his contacts disagreed with the BRHS board’s 5-4 decision to endorse CHS.
“Everyone that has talked to me wants us to consider very carefully the decision the county board of commissioners is going to make,” he said. “They think that there is one way the county ought to go, and they’re not pleased at all with the decision of the hospital board.”
Like McRoy, Klemm has been an outspoken proponent of having BRHS ink a deal with UHS.
Klemm said he hadn’t counted the phone calls he’d taken, but added he’d had between 50 and 100 e-mails.
“Normally, while I was on the phone, somebody would ring in,” he remarked. “There’s no telling how many phone calls I’ve gotten. The people are completely, completely upset about this whole thing.”
Asked what most of these individuals are telling him, he answered by saying, “As a majority they basically — to be perfectly honest, they want UHS,” Klemm said. “Let’s put it this way: people are not going to call me, I don’t think, and ask me to support CHS. It’s assumed because of my political position that I would support University Health Systems. A lot of them say they’re calling every commissioner to make noise.”
Like some of his colleagues, Klemm said this is the No. 1 issue he has grappled with since taking office.
“This elicits very strong feelings,” he stated, “and there’s no issue that will have a greater impact on the community than this issue.”
Booth said he’s happy to talk to anyone about the future of health care in Beaufort County, except during the telecast of “The Andy Griffith Show,” his favorite television program.
“I’m going to look at Andy Griffith tonight,” Booth said Thursday. “So, if they call my house at 7 p.m., they’re going to hear my wife’s voice on our answering machine.”