NC Senate approves bill to waive condition for Belhaven hospital

Published 8:20 pm Thursday, September 17, 2015

As of Thursday afternoon, the North Carolina Senate approved a bill clarifying Belhaven’s hospital facility as a “legacy medical care facility” and eliminating an exemption from licensing.

The bill allows a hospital facility to be closed for up to three years before having to apply for a certificate of need, which is essentially a license to run a hospital, thus allowing a grace period, said Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal.

He said the House is expected to vote on the bill next week, and if it passes, the Town of Belhaven will no longer be required to have a certificate of need, which is one of the requirements to obtain a $6 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development division to help reopen the hospital.

The results of the Senate’s vote follows O’Neal’s 130-mile walk to Raleigh beginning on Sept. 8 with Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson and civil rights activist Bob Zellner in an attempt to either amend or abolish the laws requiring certificates of need. Upon arriving in Raleigh late Tuesday, O’Neal said he spoke with Gov. Pat McCrory, Speaker of the House Tim Moore and Rick Brajer, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, on Wednesday.

The Save the Hospital team also met with the Senate Rules Committee about the changes to the certificate of need laws, and the committee voted in favor of changing it. The rest of the Senate decided to hold a hearing on Thursday.

“Hopefully we’ve got support in the House to pass this bill,” O’Neal said. “The community will have up to three years…without going through the long, expensive ordeal of getting the certificate of need.”

If passed, the new law could apply to other communities who have a recently closed hospital facility, he said.

“This bill will reduce the overly burdensome regulation required of financially challenged rural hospitals. … (It) will allow small rural hospitals to more easily change management with less disruptions of health care to their communities,” Sen. Bill Cook said.

Belhaven has made continual attempts to reopen a hospital after Vidant Health closed Vidant Pungo Hospital in 2014 due to the facility losing millions of dollars each year. The town is now trying to claim the property under eminent domain, thus satisfying another requirement of a property title to obtain the USDA loan.

Despite its decision to close the hospital, Vidant is building a 24-7 multispecialty clinic in Belhaven, which does not offer emergency services but does include access for helicopter transport to other hospitals.

“We had, and continue to have, no confidence that the hospital can be operated profitably as proposed by Mayor O’Neal. They simply have failed at every turn to provide anything more than unrealistic dreams,” members of Pantego Creek LLC, which manages the property, wrote in a letter to the editor.

Pantego Creek LLC is continuing to manage the property, but the town has been covering the facility’s utility bills.

“I’m just very proud of the Belhaven citizens that continue to persevere,” O’Neal said. “It’s just been a difficult time. There’s been a lot of work done.”

O’Neal began the return trip after speaking with the legislators and is now back home in Belhaven.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.