Belhaven appeals to veterans, fails to obtain property

Published 8:33 pm Friday, March 18, 2016

BELHAVEN — The fight to reopen Belhaven’s hospital rages on as tensions flare between residents and town officials are pursuing new avenues of support for the project.

Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal introduced Army veteran Mike Hall, a Virginia Beach native, at a press conference Wednesday afternoon and unveiled a new plan to provide veterans care once the hospital is reopened. Vidant Health closed Vidant Pungo Hospital in 2014.

Hall is forming the Belhaven-focused Strategic Health Care LLC, which will be managed by People’s Choice Hospital Management Group out of Illinois. He said he is planning to utilize about 30 beds at the hospital for veterans’ care, with the rest being used for general residents’ use.

Grant White, from rural hospital expansions and interagency coordination at People’s Choice, said the company has experience with revamping rural hospitals via a two-sided business plan.

The first side involves a huge demand for veteran care, including ventilation therapy and mental health treatment, as well as a good location for patients, White said.

Hall said the Belhaven hospital’s waterfront location could be therapeutic for patients, as well as a more convenient location for surrounding military bases and the veterans of Belhaven, instead of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Durham.

The second part of the business plan involves telemedicine, in which People’s Choice uses software technology to keep in contact with top-tier doctors and specialists around the world, White said. This gives patients access to better care while also avoiding steep overhead costs of having these professionals in house.

“We know how to make these small rural hospitals profitable and attainable,” he said.

At the conference, Hall emphasized that the parent company is separate from VA, but has a contract with them to provide the care.

“We think that this is going to be a good place to come,” Hall said. “I just think it’s an absolute shame that a vet would have to go 150 miles.”

As with many times before, O’Neal said Pantego Creek LLC, specifically its four managers, is the reason for the stalled hospital reopening. Pantego Creek owns the old hospital property.

To secure a $6 million United States Department of Agriculture loan, the Town of Belhaven still needs to present proof of property ownership, which the town is pursuing via an ongoing eminent domain process.

Pantego Creek Manager Brantley Tillman said the decision to hold onto the property was one made by the entire LLC, by a vote of 79-23. He said the managers are just following the wishes of Pantego Creek’s members.

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

To assure the Pantego Creek members, the group’s lawyer Arey W. Grady III sent out a letter dated March 11 telling the managers’ side of the story.

“Let me assure you that each and every original member of Pantego Creek LLC, except for those individuals who have voluntarily resigned, currently holds the same rights provided under the LLC’s original operating agreement,” the letter stated. “You should be aware that the LLC’s managers were asked just this week to attend a press conference regarding the latest plan for opening a new hospital and a Town Council meeting in order to explain to the Town Council (and to be questioned by the Council) regarding the LLC’s actions to date. The managers were simultaneously threatened with some sort of protest rally if the managers do not accept the most recent demands of the Town.”

The letter continues: “In an effort to understand the latest proposal for a new hospital, the managers have asked for, and been promised, information regarding the newest plan for opening a hospital, but the managers have received no such information to date. Therefore, the managers will not be attending the press conference or the Town Council meetings…”

In response, at Wednesday’s Board of Aldermen meeting, which Pantego Creek declined to attend, the board passed a resolution requesting Pantego Creek to turn the property over to the town, saying it is in the town’s best interest and the hospital belongs to the community.

All aldermen approved the resolution, except for Ricky Credle, who said he abstained from voting.