Hospital fate on the horizon

Published 12:33 am Friday, February 11, 2011

Contributing Writer

The fate of health care in Beaufort County and Beaufort Regional Health System will likely be decided soon, county and area medical officials told the Washington Daily News after a public hearing on the issue Wednesday night.
For the third time during three hearings in the past seven months, most speakers at Wednesday’s public hearing urged the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners to accept the lease/purchase offer for BRHS from University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina.
A crowd of about 100 people, most wearing home-made stickers with the initials UHS printed on them, attended the hearing at Beaufort County Community College. Of 11 speakers, nine supported the UHS lease/purchase offer during the 40-minute public hearing.
Most of the speakers at two previous public hearings on the future of BRHS supported an affiliation with UHS, and Wednesday’s hearing was no exception.
“The people of Beaufort County have spoken, I feel like, in overwhelming numbers,” said Washington resident Derik Davis. “It is now time to move forward.”
Unlike previous hearings on the issue, several speakers, including Davis, criticized various aspects of the process the BRHS board and the county commissioners have followed in their deliberations and debate.
They called for future discussions to be held in public, and several speakers called for additional investigations surrounding the withdrawal and re-entry by Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tenn., into merger talks with the BRHS board.
“I want the entire mess and the people responsible investigated,” said Chocowinity resident Kathy Vasquez.
Others, including Velma Hickman of Blounts Creek and John Murphy of Washington, criticized the citizen groups that backed the UHS proposal for interfering with the review process.
Murphy also cautioned the commissioners against making a quick decision on the UHS offer.
“When something looks too good to be true and smells fishy, it usually is,” he told the commissioners, later adding, “I just don’t trust what’s going on. Take your time.”
The commissioners are expected to conclude their review of the UHS offer within the next few weeks, County Manager Paul Spruill said in an interview after the public hearing.
The goal of the commissioners is “to move as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that the commissioners should reach “some kind of conclusion within the next few weeks as opposed to the next few months.”
Meanwhile, a review of BRHS financial records and operations is expected to conclude within 30 to 45 days, according to Kathy G. Barger, UHS chief system development and growth officer, clearing the way for the BRHS Board of Commissioners to finalize its agreement with UHS to manage the health system and its affiliated doctors practices.
“We’re committed to Beaufort Regional Health System,” she said in a brief press conference after the hearing.
Although Barger would not predict what the results of that review — a process known as “due diligence” — would be, she said that once UHS has initiated such a review of a potential affiliate, it “has not left a community.”
Barger and Roger Robertson, president of East Carolina Health, attended Wednesday’s hearing. East Carolina Health is the UHS subsidiary that operates the system’s community hospitals.
“It was very humbling to hear the very positive comments from the community,” Barger said. “We are looking forward to a vote by the county commissioners, and we certainly hope that will be a positive outcome.”
For the past week, since a letter of intent has been signed by BRHS and UHS officials, teams of UHS administrators and staff have visited BRHS to review its various operations.
The BRHS board has recommended to the county commissioners a 30-year lease of the local health system by UHS for $30 million with the option by UHS 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 for the lease of the health-care system’s real estate.