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UNC System, ECU file for injunction against county, Vidant

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By Bobby Burns
The Daily Reflector

Monday, May 20, 2019

The UNC system and East Carolina University filed a compliant Monday seeking an injunction and ultimately a reversal of changes that stripped the UNC Board of Governors’ authority to make appointments to the governing board of Vidant Medical Center.

The complaint filed in state Superior Court in Orange County says the changes made by Pitt County and Vidant Medical Center last month are a breech of a 2013 agreement with the university system and it demands monetary damages unless the changes are voided. It says funds in excess of $25,000 — the maximum amount a lawsuit can specify — will be required for the university system to build a new teaching hospital for the Brody School of Medicine.

“The successful, long-standing partnership between Vidant Medical Center and East Carolina University has served an important public interest that benefits residents of Pitt County, other counties in eastern North Carolina, and the State of North Carolina,” UNC system spokesman Josh Eillis said in a statement announcing the complaint.

“When what is now the Brody School of Medicine was created, the state legislature invested significant funds in Pitt County Memorial Hospital. Since that time, the appointment of the board governing what is now Vidant Medical Center has been shared between appointees of Pitt County and the UNC Board of Governors. ECU, with strong support from the University System, takes the stewardship responsibility regarding the Brody School of Medicine and its historic public mission with the utmost seriousness. Vidant’s unexpected elimination of the appointment powers vested in the UNC Board of Governors, accomplished without consultation, creates serious concerns about a relationship that has served eastern North Carolina well since its inception in 1975.”

Commissioners on April 22, with no discussion, unanimously approved five changes to the hospital’s articles of incorporation that nullified the Board of Governors’ authority to nominate nine posts on the hospitals Board of Trustees. The changes gave the county and hospital complete control over who is appointed to the board.

The county had shared the duties with the UNC system’s governing body since December 1975, when Vidant, then Pitt County Memorial Hospital, became the teaching hospital linked to ECU’s school of medicine. Pitt County sold the hospital to a nonprofit later known as University Health Systems (now Vidant Health) in 1998, but the county has retained some governing authority.

The complaint filed Monday seeks a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction and ultimately a permanent injunction that will prevent the new governance structure from taking effect. Alternatively, the UNC System will pursue a breech of contract lawsuit that will seek damages for investments made in the hospital and costs it will incur to build build a new teaching facility. 

The Pitt County Board of Commissioners was in a workshop session beginning at 4 p.m. Monday. County spokesman Mike Emory said officials only learned of the legal action about 3:30 p.m. and were not ready to comment. The board did add a closed session to the agenda for its regular meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. The stated reason for the unscheduled session was for the board to consult with its attorney.

Administrators at Vidant are aware of the lawsuit, according to a statement issued by the health system spokesman Jason Lowry. “There is nothing about the governance changes that materially or fundamentally changes the academic affiliation or the more the 40-year relationship between the Brody School of Medicine and Vidant Medical Center. We look forward to a positive resolution.”

Under the new rules, the hospital’s board of trustees will consist of 20 members. Eleven, or 55 percent of the members, will be appointed by the Board of Commissioners. The remaining nine, or 45 percent, will be appointed by the Vidant Board of Trustees and selected from a slate of candidates nominated by the Board of Directors of University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina, now known as Vidant Health.

Of the nine members, two will live outside Pitt County and two shall be “leadership positions” at East Carolina University. Among the commissioners’ appointees must be a doctor who lives in Pitt County and who is an active member of the hospital’s medical staff.

The UNC statement said that system officials area hopeful that action by the court will allow the parties to “pause and evaluate” what steps will be needed to preserve the partnership with Vidant.

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329-9572.

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