Mayor marches to save hospital

Published 6:53 pm Saturday, July 12, 2014

Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal (right) will walk to Washington D.C. from Belhaven on Monday, as he continues his fight to save Pungo District Hospital.

Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal (right) will walk to Washington D.C. from Belhaven on Monday, as he continues his fight to save Pungo District Hospital.


BELHAVEN — Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal announced he will walk to Washington, D.C., continuing his fight to save Pungo District Hospital.

O’Neal announced his plan to fight back against the closing of the hospital at Monday’s Beaufort County Commissioners meeting. Vidant Health closed the hospital on July 1 despite federal mediation between Vidant, the NC NAACP and the town. The mediation by the U.S. Department of Justice was in the effort to transfer the hospital from Vidant to the town.

At the meeting, O’Neal and Poole and Associates representative Dr. Norris Gunby, who is also an associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, went before the commissioners and presented what they say is a feasible plan to reopen and operate the hospital. Poole and Associates is a consulting team aiding the NC NAACP and the Town of Belhaven in coming up with a plan to run the hospital. In response, the commissioners allocated $25,000 to aid in the fight, O’Neal said.

“Belhaven’s battle to hold onto emergency healthcare is shaping up to be a do-or-die challenge for rural America,” O’Neal said. “When it’s do-or-die, it’s no time to sit still. That’s why I’m walking.”

O’Neal said he plans to start his two-week journey from the hospital Monday morning at 9 a.m. and will walk almost 300 miles through Virginia to the nation’s capital. He hopes to meet with United States Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama and have the United States Department of Justice step in and investigate the closing of the hospital. Currently, he has received no verification that he will, in fact, be able to meet with them, O’Neal said.

“I’m walking for Medicaid expansion, walking for a law to stop conglomerates from buying out their competition and walking for a 48-year old woman who died on Monday, possibly as a direct result of our hospital being closed,” O’Neal said. “Any time a critical access hospital closes, it should have signatures from the Health and Human Services director to allow it.

“Her death has shaken up the people of my town and my region. Many of our neighbors in Hyde County live 84 miles away from the nearest hospital. Everyone is looking at each other, saying ‘Who will be next?’”

O’Neal said during his walk he intends to speak with residents and lawmakers about the need to put partisan politics aside and work together to save our healthcare system.

“I hope to raise awareness about the endangerment of rural healthcare across this country,” O’Neal said. “In the last year, more rural hospitals have closed than in the previous 15 years. Every hospital closure means preventable death and suffering.”

The town and the NC NAACP said they have come up with a plan that will sustain the operation of the hospital through a provision of the Affordable Care Act — an Accountable Care Organization. Bo Bobbitt, a nationally recognized healthcare expert on ACOs, said the program can make rural healthcare more viable and is perfect for Belhaven’s situation. The program says that if Medicare money allocated by the federal government can be saved, the government will split the saved money with the ACO. This could help generate the funds necessary to run the hospital, according to the town, NC NAACP, Bobbitt and Poole and Associates.

“If people knew how much potential there is, if we right size that hospital, and wrap this ACO around it, I think we could be onto something,” Bobbitt said. “I know ACOs and it will work.”