Save Our Hospital: It is a simple, straightforward title for an organization. It reminds me of the moment toward the end of “Steal This Movie,” where Abbie Hoffman is trying to teach political organizing. He starts by renaming the campaign for the St. Lawrence River “Save the River.” When people ask what river, he would have their attention to talk about it.
That’s what we need to do: talk about New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
In July 2019, our county commissioners informed the public they would explore the sale of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC)—a community-owned hospital serving New Hanover and six surrounding counties. The driver of health care in our region, NHRMC also is the largest employer in the area; over 7,000 people earn their daily bread with jobs there. Plus, it’s a teaching hospital.
Many residents were dismayed by the news, and in spite of a public outcry, on September 16, 2019, three of our five commissioners voted to proceed with the sale’s exploration.
A Partnership Advisory Group (PAG) composed of five hospital trustees, five doctors and nine people from the community was created by New Hanover County to review the options for the future of the hospital and craft the Request for Proposals (RFP) to be sent to possible future buyers. At present, the PAG has RFPs out to potential buyers.
On November 21, 2019, Gene Merritt, Senator Harper Peterson, Bruce Shell, Alex Hall and other supporters gathered on the steps of the New Hanover County Courthouse to announce the formation of Save Our Hospital. On January 21, 2020, the group hosted a forum at the New Hanover County Public Library Northeast Branch, which included North Carolina treasurer Dale Folwell and president and CEO of Renaissance Wilmington Foundation Bill Graham. Dr. Barak Richman of Duke University joined the discussion via Skype from Stanford.
People leaned against the walls at the event, which welcomed a standing-room-only reception. Though the speakers gave presentations, it was the Q&A period that started to feel electric—mainly because the wrong people were on the speaker’s panel. Many of the questions fielded have been asked since July—and we the public still do not have answers:
Whose idea was it to sell the hospital? Who will benefit from the sale? Why now? Why can’t we have this as a ballot referendum item? Why can’t we have a year-long study to see what’s the best option for everyone the hospital serves?
As Merritt pointed out, we haven’t received an answer to the first question, despite it being asked. As to who will benefit from the sale?
“The buyer is the beneficiary,” Folwell pointed out. “I’m from another city that starts with a ‘W’—it’s not Wilmington, it’s Winston-Salem. But I think I know enough about Wilmington to know what transpired when I was 10 years old; that’s when the hospital started. The community came together to build something that would provide high-quality, accessible, low-cost health care.”
As to the ballot referendum possibility, he acknowledged that it is not an uncommon experience to discover, though the will of the people might create something (like a hospital) through a ballot initiative, there is no path for recourse by future generations to undo the creation through another referendum. “Unless the General Assembly changes that.”
Local attorney and Save Our Hospital member Alex Hall concurred it isn’t legal to put it on the ballot. According to Hall, there has been an attempt to bring the issue before the North Carolina General Assembly.
“From what I understand, our senator from Brunswick County, who is in charge of the rules committee, would deep-six that proposal, as soon as it hit the legislation that it produced,” Hall tells. “That is a political issue—I think nonpartisan, but we need to get enough pressure presented to the NC General Assembly and our local politicians to where they listen.”
Dale Smith, a member of Save Our Hospital and the emcee of the evening, shook his head at questions regarding the timeline: What’s the rush? Why can’t we have a year-long study to see what’s the best option for New Hanover County and surrounding counties?
“I don’t think it does any good to ask anybody because nobody knows the answer to that question,” he responded. “We’ve been trying to figure that out for some time; we’ve asked and haven’t received an answer.”
Though he was not on the panel or an invited speaker, New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple attended the presentation. He was ready to get involved in, what he called, “a healthy conversation.” Observing the size and engagement of the crowd, he commented, “It is clear a large part of our community has not been convinced since July 23, the sale of the hospital or a major change to the ownership of the hospital, is the right thing for this community.”
Zapple pointed to the projected growth of our area; another 100,000 people are expected to move here by 2040. Thus, outside help will be needed. “So we should look throughout our region and across the county to bring the best experts we can to sit on the board of directors,” he said, “and that’s an immediate fix that can happen whether we do anything or not—and take it out of the political whims of the county commissioners.”
In the meantime, he makes it clear that public discussions are vital to the future. “Trying to stop discussions, trying to stop questions, trying to distort questions that are being asked or trying to distort answers—there’s no place for that,” Zapple said. “We need good transparent dialogue about what is best for our health care today and going into the future.”
In the Q&A period, one of the questions brought up asked why the discussion was focused on the sale of the hospital, and not on expanding and improving the hospital with additional capital. New Hanover County Commissioner Barfield asked the same question last fall, and stated on the record there was plan prepared for the hospital to seek outside capital. He wanted to know why it was ignored in favor of a rush-to-sell strategy. Folwell explained part of his responsibilities include chairing the Local Government Commission (LGC).
“The LGC was set up after the bankruptcy of Asheville in the Depression,” he noted. “We were the only state that had something called the LGC, and there’s 1,310 entities that have to come before the LGC in order to borrow money.”
Folwell explained how the LGC’s role is to ensure entities borrowing money from water and sewer districts to cities and counties meet criteria are necessary and expedient. Regarding the possibility of NHRMC borrowing outside capital to grow he stated, “I know of no hindrance, referenced by that question that would prevent that from occurring, so long as those criteria were met.”
Zapple acknowledged though changes to the operating structure are important, we must maintain at least 51% local control. Merritt promised more work and events by Save Our Hospital to increase the public information campaign.
Dr. Barak Richman seemingly wrapped up the meeting best: “If you guys don’t stand up and stop this consolidation, then it is likely nobody will.”