Mayor O'Neal's Speech at US Capitol

See Fusion Films the live stream archive of the 7-28-14 rally here.

by DON OWENS, SaveOurHospital.org

Right now, America’s heartland is suffering through a crisis that strikes at its very core — more rural hospitals have closed in the past 2 years than in the previous 15 years combined. So far, media coverage of Mayor Adam O'Neal's 273-mile march to the US Capitol building has focused on North Carolina’s decision not to expand Medicaid. And, it is true that 20 of the 22 rural hospitals that rural America has recently lost are in states that failed to accept Medicaid expansion. But it’s actually a lot more complex than that. It’s about the relationship between the People, our laws, and our government, and the cost in human lives that rural communities are paying because corporate CEO's are putting profit before people, and getting away with it.

In 1946, Congress passed the bi-partisan Hospital Survey and Construction Act, known commonly as the Hill-Burton Act. Sponsored by Republican Sen. Harold Burton of Ohio and Democratic Sen. J. Lister Hill of Alabama, the legislation provided grants and loans for rural hospitals, an objective badly needed at the time. In return, hospitals were required to provide services to “all people living in an area, regardless of race or creed, and to help patients who couldn't pay by providing free or reduced-cost care.” These funds helped to bring healthcare services to areas that hospitals had previously ignored.

One such area was eastern Beaufort and Hyde counties in coastal North Carolina. Three years after passage of the Hill-Burton Act, local leaders in Belhaven, NC completed construction on Pungo District Hospital. For more than 60 years, the facility served as a critical access hospital for a town, current population 1,700, as well as a wide geographic area, much of which is farm land, current population approximately 23,000.

In 2011, the Pungo District Hospital was taken over by Vidant Health, Inc. with a contractual promise to “improve, sustain and expand” it. Almost immediately though, Vidant began shifting profitable services and equipment away from the hospital, shifting unfair costs to it, and otherwise financially mismanaging it. Two years later, Vidant announced that it planned to close the hospital for financial reasons without informing or engaging anyone in the town or the region. Dozens of jobs were eliminated and $14-17 million per year will be taken out of the local economy as long as the hospital remains closed.

Now there are thousands of people in who must travel as many as 85 miles to reach the next nearest critical care hospital. On July 5, a 48-year-old woman, Mrs. Portia Gibbs, experienced a heart attack and died in the back of a stationary ambulance waiting for a helicopter to arrive. They didn’t try to move her because with our emergency room closed, the distance by road to the next closest hospital was too great to even try.

On April 3, Vidant Health, Inc. signed a Justice Department-mediated settlement to keep the hospital open and transfer its management to a local board in three months’ time. Instead of honoring that agreement, Vidant used a third-party company — one they paid to create and with whom they collaborate regularly, but claim to have no influence over — to break that settlement and close the hospital. What’s the Justice Department have to say about that? So far, all we know is that the Office of Civil Rights is investigating, and, we know such things take time.  The Department of Health and Human Services is investigating as well.

Federal funds were used to build this hospital and federal funds kept it open 60 years. In fact, 70% of the money Vidant Health, Inc. brings in comes from federal programs like Medicare. And, Vidant Health, Inc. enjoys tax-exempt status which is basically a gigantic government subsidy. In so many ways, our tax dollars are being used to prop up this “non-profit” that is victimizing rather than helping people.

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