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NC Senate unanimously approves hospital requirement changes

The Town of Belhaven is likely moving another step forward in its fight to reopen a hospital facility.

The North Carolina Senate voted 44-0 Tuesday afternoon to approve a revised version of a bill that amended the definition of an existing hospital facility, among other things.

“This is the last political issue,” Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal said. “It’s a huge victory for the people.”

Tuesday’s vote follows a previous Senate vote on Sept. 17 concerning a different version of the bill. After the Sept. 17 vote, the House reviewed the bill and further amended it, adding in provisions for computing storage and allowing hospital jurisdiction to cross state lines, Belhaven Board of Alderman Julian Goff said.

Once the House passed the revised version, it was sent back to the Senate for Tuesday’s vote. The bill will now go to Gov. Pat McCrory.

O’Neal said he is confident McCrory will sign the bill into law, as he has expressed his support for the hospital in the past.

If signed, the bill would clarify the legal definition of Belhaven’s hospital building as a “legacy medical care facility,” and eliminate the need for the town to obtain a certificate of need.

The certificate of need is essentially a license to run the hospital, and is one of the requirements for Belhaven to obtain a $6 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development division to help cover the costs of reopening the facility, according to Garland Burnette, program director at USDA Rural Development.

To raise support for the Belhaven hospital and to push for changes to the certificate of need laws, O’Neal embarked on a nine-day walk to Raleigh accompanied by civil rights activist Bob Zellner and Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson earlier this month.

Along with the certificate, the town also needs to present a property title, Burnette said. Belhaven is still trying to obtain the property under eminent domain.

O’Neal said the next step after the Senate vote is to move forward with the plans for claiming the property.

The Town of Belhaven has been fighting to reopen its hospital facility since Vidant Pungo Hospital’s closure on July 1, 2014 due to deficits. To help accommodate health care needs in the area, Vidant Health is now constructing a multispecialty clinic, which will bring its smaller Belhaven clinics under the same roof and provide helicopter access in emergency situations.

In response to claims that Vidant abandoned the town, communications manager Christine Mackey said the medical group has invested $1.3 million in Beaufort and Hyde counties, including funds for upgrades to emergency services.

Pantego Creek LLC still owns the hospital property, and members of the group maintain that reopening the hospital would be a financial mistake, as they do not believe it can plausibly operate profitably.

“I would like to thank Sen. (Ralph) Hise and Sen. (Tom) Apodaca particularly for their help with this bill, as well as our home Sen. Bill Cook. They were very instrumental in this vote today. I’d also like to thank (Rep.) Paul Tine, (Rep.) Mike Speciale and the Speaker of the House Tim Moore,” O’Neal said, adding that he also appreciates the roughly 50 Belhaven residents who joined him in Raleigh on Tuesday.