Local hospital decision weeks away|Another public hearing set for Feb. 9 at BCCC

Published 9:06 pm Thursday, January 27, 2011

Contributing Writer

A decision on the future of Beaufort Regional Health System is still three or four weeks away, the audience at the first face-to-face meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners and representatives of University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina was told Wednesday.
Much of the three-hour meeting at Beaufort County Community College between the county commissioners and UHS representatives was held behind closed doors.
But it attracted a crowd of about 75 people, most of whom wore tags showing their support for UHS, and culminated in a public question-and-answer session between the commissioners and UHS representatives.
Some in the crowd said they hoped for a quick vote in favor of the UHS offer.
“Given the hospital’s situation, they need to move quickly,” said Washington resident Derik Davis.
At times, the meeting resembled a pep rally with members of the audience chanting “UHS, UHS, UHS” as the commissioners came back into the auditorium after their closed-door sessions — first with their lawyers and later with UHS representatives.
At the beginning of a public question-and-answer session, UHS Chief Executive Officer Dave C. McRae acknowledged the enthusiasm and community support both during the meeting and after it.
“We’re very pleased to be invited,” he said in a press conference after the meeting. “We are very honored that there is support in the community … support of UHS to come to Washington.”
While some of those attending said in interviews that they were ready for a vote on the UHS proposal, County Manager Paul Spruill said that decision is likely “three to four weeks” away.
“The transaction that we’re contemplating is a very complicated transaction and a very important transaction with 50-year implications,” he told the crowd. “There are some legal expectations of us and we intend to meet those expectations.”
In addition to discussions between lawyers representing the county and UHS over the next few weeks, the public will have the chance to comment, once again, on the offer by UHS for a 30-year lease of the local health-care system at a public hearing Wednesday, Feb. 9, to be held by the county commissioners at BCCC.
The BRHS Board of Commissioners has recommended to the county commissioners a 30-year lease of the local health system by UHS for $30 million with the option to buy the property for an additional $10 million at the end of that lease. The most recent offer by UHS is an increase of $12 million over its initial offer.
Ultimately, the county commissioners will decide whether to accept, amend or reject the BRHS board’s recommendation.
In interviews before Wednesday’s meeting the commissioners who were available for interviews and willing to respond said that while they were pleased with the UHS offer, they had questions about the details of that offer.
Those details include the future of the certificate of need that places the medical center’s beds in Beaufort County, the issue of local representation on the UHS governing board, the future of the current health-system administrators and issues related to the purchase of health care-center property at the expiration of the lease.
Four UHS representatives — including McRae, Roger Robertson, president of East Carolina Health and HealthAccess; Kathy Barger, UHS chief strategic officer; and Nancy Aycock, UHS general counsel — met with the county commissioners in a public session to address 10 of the commissioners’ questions.
In response to questions from the commissioners, Barger said that UHS was committed to maintaining a hospital in Beaufort County and would be willing to include in any lease agreement the commitment to keep the certificate of need within the county.
She also said that UHS promised to provide health care to those in Beaufort County who were unable to pay for that care and would commit to doing so in any lease agreement signed with Beaufort County.
And she said that in addition to the $21 million in capital expenses that UHS pledged as part of its lease offer, the Greenville-based health care system typically spends between 100 and 110 percent of depreciation expenses on continued upkeep of hospital buildings and equipment.
County Commissioner Jay McRoy, who previously said he had some questions about the details of the lease, said in an interview after the meeting that he “felt comfortable” with the responses from UHS officials Wednesday.
“They truly have Beaufort County’s interest at heart,” he said.
County Commissioner Hood Richardson, who previously said he saw an “uphill battle” ahead in the discussions with UHS, said after Wednesday’s meeting that the commissioners were “making progress” in their discussions.
“I’m happy we’re moving forward,” he said.
Meanwhile, although one member of the BRHS board said she was pleased with the responses by UHS officials to the county commissioners’ questions, she wondered why the commissioners were pursuing responses to the same questions asked of UHS by the BRHS board.
“They have not trusted the hospital board’s vetting of this process,” said BRHS board member Suzanne Gray.