Belhaven hospital supporters appeal to veterans

Published 7:36 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2016

BELHAVEN — The Town of Belhaven’s battle to reopen the formerly named Vidant Pungo Hospital is turning a new page, now appealing to the potential benefits of having a hospital for veterans’ care.

In a full-page advertisement, Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal wrote that the town has received a letter of intent from Strategic Health Care LLC, regarding its commitment to repurpose the hospital for veteran care.

“Our location central to several military bases has made this joint effort right for our veterans and our community. Belhaven will become a destination for veterans to visit and live in the future,” O’Neal wrote as part of the ad.

Mike Hall, a retired U.S. Army veteran and affiliate of Strategic Health Care, wrote a letter, which also appeared in the ad, dated March 1 to the Pungo Medical Center Board of Directors explaining his plans to manage a Belhaven project, which would involve the occupation of 30 or more beds for veterans at the hospital.

Pungo Medical Center is a nonprofit set up to manage the hospital once it is reopened. The board includes O’Neal, as well as former Belhaven Alderman Julian Goff and Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson, among others.

“Strategic Health Care LLC, managed by People [sic] Choice Hospital Management Group, is prepared to sign a lease with the Board to occupy 30-35 beds of the hospital for various services for the veteran community,” Hall wrote in the letter.

“I know firsthand the issues that our veterans face. My purpose is not to criticize the current VA (Veterans Affairs) health care system. As local manager in Belhaven my goal will be to assist and improve the availability of quality health care to the 1 percent of our population that ensures that the 99 percent are able to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Hall continued.

Attempts to contact Hall through managing company People’s Choice Hospital were unsuccessful, and O’Neal said he would not pass on contact information, as Hall was not speaking to the press at this time.

In the advertisement, O’Neal also made claims that the four managers of Pantego Creek LLC, which owns the hospital property, are “stopping Pungo Medical Center from reopening the hospital.”

The Town of Belhaven is still in the process of obtaining a $6 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture to cover the costs of reopening the hospital.

Garland Burnette, program director at USDA Rural Development, said in a previous interview that the town was informed of unfulfilled requirements for the loan in July 2015, including a certificate of need and a property title. The certificate of need requirement has since been waived, but Belhaven is still trying to obtain the property under eminent domain from Pantego Creek.

Brantley Tillman, one of the managers of Pantego Creek, said the entity is keeping the property and supporting Vidant Health’s agreement to build a multispecialty clinic in Belhaven, as a majority of its more than 100 members voted to do, 79-23, in 2014 before Vidant closed the hospital in July of that year.

Tillman said that reports about the four managers holding the property hostage are unsubstantiated, and they are only complying with what the membership wants.

“We took the certainty of Vidant over the risk, which was a foolish risk,” he said. “The membership is the same membership that voted, that 79-23. … They voted overwhelmingly to go with Vidant.”

Tillman said Pantego Creek would like to eventually sell the property and use the funds to support health care in some way, whether that means purchasing defibrillators or awarding scholarships.

“There’s not much we can do,” he said. “You can’t go to a meeting and refute (O’Neal) because he’ll throw you out.”

“This is not a decision the four of us have made. It was not a decision made arbitrarily,” Tillman said.

O’Neal said there will be a press conference March 16 at Belhaven Civic Center at 1:30 p.m., where Mike Hall will address the public about his plans.