New UHS offer is disappointing

Published 12:07 am Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We’re not surprised, but we are disappointed, that University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina lowered its offer to lease-purchase Beaufort Regional Health System.

As reported on today’s front page, UHS reduced its offer from $30 million to $25 million partly because of a troubling audit of BRHS’s books.

The audit revealed significant operating losses as well as two “material weaknesses,” two “significant deficiencies” and three matters of concern in internal controls in BRHS operations.

From the start of this process we have said UHS is the only real choice for partnering with our local health system, primarily for three reasons: 1.) Greenville-based UHS is located virtually next door to BRHS, 2.) UHS is a nonprofit and, 3.) UHS already has a relationship with BRHS.

The difficulty seems to be that the recent audit of BRHS forces UHS to deal with the reduced value of our Washington-based health system as it stands. In point of fact, even the healthiest nonprofits can’t take on huge losses without some financial flexibility.

The value of BRHS has been reduced, in part, because of millions of dollars in payments due the medical system (bills UHS will have to collect), and, in part, because of past errors by BRHS financial managers in calculating the expense of depreciation on health system capital purchases.

We’re not too keen on engaging in Monday-morning quarterbacking, but we wonder whether some of these losses could have been staved off had the BRHS board and the county commissioners addressed problems within the medical system more quickly and realized the futility of trying to keep that system under local control.

The county commissioners appoint the BRHS board members because the county owns the hospital buildings. Why didn’t the commissioners take a more serious look at BRHS finances throughout the years before things deteriorated to this point?

That’s a question for which we have no answer, at least not as yet.

In any event, the state of our hospital could also be more a consequence of recession-driven declines and insufficient Medicaid reimbursements and management issues than official neglect – but these are complex topics for another day.

The bottom line is UHS intervention in BRHS isn’t going to be a panacea, and no one should have expected it to be. Our county is going to make less money on this deal than it appeared it would some months ago, and neither UHS or any other suitor could be blamed for that.

What UHS can do in the near future is make Beaufort County’s health system profitable again, and fix some of the internal problems noted in the audit.

UHS can also continue the high-quality health care county residents have come to expect from Beaufort County Medical Center and affiliated medical practices.