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Senate leaders weigh building new hospital for Brody

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The front entrance of the new Vidant Cancer Center Thursday, March 8, 2018.

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By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Friday, May 31, 2019

A dispute between Vidant Health and state leaders escalated Thursday as news broke that leaders in the Senate are discussing construction of a new hospital in Greenville and Vidant’s CEO accused the University of North Carolina System of trying to take over the current hospital.

Thursday saw nonstop activity involving the decision by Vidant and the Pitt County Board of Commissioners to strip the UNC Board of Governors of the authority to appoint new members to the hospital board — a move that resulted in a lawsuit by the UNC System and East Carolina.

State Sen. Don Davis, a Greenville Democrat, was thwarted in his effort to remove a provision added to the Senate’s budget proposal that cut Vidant’s Medicaid reimbursement connected to its service as a teaching hospital. This prompted the Pitt County Board of Commissioners to adopt a resolution asking the General Assembly to retain the hospital’s funding. The commissioners are asking other eastern North Carolina counties to adopt similar resolutions.

ECU’s Board of Trustees also received an update on the lawsuit and the decision by both sides to begin mediation.

Dr. Michael Waldrum, CEO of Vidant Health, said during a Thursday morning radio interview on WTIB’s “Talk of the Town”  that he believes UNC Health wants to take over Vidant Medical Center and Vidant Health. When asked for additional information, a Vidant spokesman said, “We don’t have anything to add to Dr. Waldrum’s comments at this time.”

The Vidant spokesman also said administrators were not aware of discussions that Senate leaders were having about constructing a teaching hospital for the Brody School of Medicine. The discussions first were reported on the Carolina Journal website.

Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Sen. President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, confirmed the report.

“(The) General Assembly leadership is actively crunching the numbers,” Ryan said in an email. “Thirty-five million per year could finance a considerable construction project.” He provided no other details.

In the lawsuit filed May 20, UNC and ECU say because of the actions of Vidant and Pitt County, the university system “must build a separate state-owned teaching hospital to ensure availability of appropriately supervised and adequately-sized clinical learning space for BSOM students.”

Harry Smith, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors, called Waldrum’s comments “unfortunately, incredulously false” and said Waldrum should know the claim is false.

“I will also tell you it’s against state law for UNC to do a hostile takeover of Vidant. General statute prevents that,” Smith said. “I will tell you it is 100 percent incorrect that UNC Health Care is trying to take over Vidant.”

Vidant officials are basing their concern on a page in third-party mergers and acquisitions study that looked at all possible health care partners for the UNC system. 

Smith said he knows of only one meeting between UNC and Vidant officials and he was there. Smith said UNC officials said “if there is something that works for you let us know and if it doesn’t let us know.” That remains the position of UNC Health Care, Smith said.

When the Senate began the vote to pass its version of the state budget on Thursday, Davis fought to remove a portion of the budget that said Vidant would no longer receive the higher Medicaid reimbursements that go to the state’s teaching hospitals. The budget line said Vidant will be reimbursed in the same manner of other private hospitals.

“Eastern North Carolina again is under attack,” Davis said. “What is going on here?”

Not only is the Senate cutting Vidant’s Medicaid reimbursement, he said, there is no money to fund planning for a new medical school facility. The House budget contains $28 million over two years for planning.

“We are doing everything it seems to dismantle health care,” Davis said. “Risking health care for thousands of people over a contest about nine seats on a board.”

After Davis formally submitted his amendment, Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican representative of six western North Carolina counties, introduce a substitute amendment to give an additional $1 million to the North Carolina Eastern Area Health Education Center, one of nine centers that works to attract and retain health care professionals. Hise did not state what the money would fund and gave limited responses where asked if he thought $1 million was an equal substitute with the estimated $35 million Vidant could lose if the budget provision remained.

Republican Sen. Rick Horner urged the chamber to vote against Hise’s amendment, citing Davis’s decision to vote to overturn the governor’s veto of legislation requiring medical providers to give medical care if a baby is born alive after an abortion.

Instead, the Senate voted 27-21 in favor of Hise’s amendment, defeating Davis’s amendment. The vote was along party lines with Horner being the only Republican to vote against Hise’s amendment.

The Senate budget passed along a party line vote 29-18, with one Democratic and two Republican senators receiving excused absences.

A third reading of the budget must take place before it has final approval and heads to conference with House leaders. It will take place when the Senate convenes at 9 a.m. today.

“I am not going to take this lying down, and will keep working to get this removed from the budget during negotiations,” Davis said. “Eastern North Carolina does not deserve this.”

Since the House and Senate budgets differ, the House will have to take a “non concur” vote on the Senate budget, Davis said. When that happens the two chambers will appoint conference committee members who will negotiate a final budget.

While the Senate continued budget discussions, members of ECU’s Board of Trustees held an emergency meeting to receive an update on the ongoing legal efforts and the decision to enter mediation.

“That’s pretty important. Mediation is an opportunity for the parties to talk,” said Kieran Shanahan, outgoing chairman of ECU’s Board of Trustees. “You sort of leave your weapons checked outside, and what we hope and believe is all the players involved in this really do have the people of east Carolina and providing health care benefits to the rural population in the forefront of their minds. If all the parties do that, we are going to have a good outcome here.”

Shanahan said ECU’s trustees want to encourage all parties to “not escalate but to communicate with each other to come up with some solutions to help move us forward.”

The Pitt County Board of Commissioners also held an emergency meeting to unanimously adopt a resolution opposing the Senate’s cuts to Vidant’s Medicaid reimbursement. The board passed it with no discussion, following a summary by County Attorney Janis Gallagher.

Most commissioners quickly left the room and were not available for comment.

After the meeting, Chairwoman Beth Ward and County Manager Scott Elliot lingered to address reporters.

Ward said support for the hospital was important.

“If you’ll look, there’s eight hospitals that have been established that are under the Vidant banner that are in eastern North Carolina serving the east — which was very under served before that happened,” Ward said. “We just feel like that’s just being taken away from us and it has been a real chore getting there.”

Bobby Burns and Tyler Stocks contributed to this report. Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.

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