Belhaven mayor makes another trek to Capitol

Published 3:18 pm Friday, September 23, 2016

BELHAVEN — Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal made another trip to Washington, D.C., this week.

This time around O’Neal has his sights set on the United States Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, demanding a meeting to discuss the loss of Belhaven’s hospital and the continuing struggle to reopen it.

In a letter to Lynch, O’Neal stated: “We are walking around the Justice Department to bring justice to the fight for the Belhaven, N.C. hospital. We are here to stop the needless loss of life occurring in our hometown area.”

The letter continued: “We know you and your staff are very busy with many very important issues from around the country. We are here to insist that a high priority to be placed on the complaints filed concerning the Belhaven Hospital.”

On Friday, O’Neal said he met with U.S. Rep. John Lewis at the Capitol, as well as others “sympathetic to our issue.” Civil rights activist Bob Zellner is also present on the trip.

O’Neal laid out three complaints to the Department of Justice: the lack of results regarding a civil rights complaint, alleging minority discrimination in Vidant Health’s decision to close the hospital; the removal of Judge Milton Fitch Jr. from Belhaven’s case against Vidant and hospital property managers Pantego Creek LLC; unfair trade practices created by Vidant and Pantego Creek.

“Your Justice Department has had this complaint for almost 6 months and has made no effort to investigate,” O’Neal said of the judge complaint. “We know that once you, Attorney General Lynch, learn of this tragedy an investigation will begin.”

Vidant has denied any wrongdoing in closing the hospital, saying it was due to operating on a deficit, and denies playing any part in the decision to remove Fitch from the lawsuit. Vidant also maintains that it remains committed to health care in Belhaven, opening a $6 million multispecialty clinic in June.

Pantego Creek has also denied any wrongdoing, as the LLC’s four managers maintain they can only make decisions about the hospital property based on the members’ vote.

“Like all eastern Beaufort County and Hyde County residents, we are heartbroken at the loss of our hospital. But we understand the reality of operating (or rather the inability to operate) a small-town hospital in today’s health care industry,” the Pantego Creek managers wrote in a 2015 letter to the editor. “We think Vidant’s multispecialty clinic is going to be a great asset to our community and the most viable, long-term option for continued quality health care in our community.”

When Vidant Pungo Hospital closed in July 2014, town officials and some residents rallied in support of reopening the facility, creating the nonprofit Pungo Medical Center to head up the operation. O’Neal has made multiple trips to Raleigh and Washington, D.C., over the past two years in an effort to raise support for the Save the Hospital campaign.

“We are a small town that is fighting for our economic survival, as well as our literal lives,” he said in the letter.

To read the full copy of the letter, click HERE.