N.C. small town mayor walking to D.C. to protest hospital closing

Source: Health CXO
Lena Kauffman

Adam O'Neal, the Republican mayor of the town of Belhaven, North Carolina (population 1,639), is walking 273 miles from Belhaven to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the July 1 closing of Vidant Pungo Hospital, the town’s only hospital.

 N.C. small town mayor walking to D.C. to protest hospital closing

Small community hospitals in many parts of the country have struggled with health care reform changes, including costly new government requirements such as electronic health record implementation, cuts in reimbursement, lack of leverage with payors, and declining inpatient admissions. In states, like North Carolina, that have elected not to expand Medicaid, the situation is especially difficult as the Affordable Care Act reduces subsidies for treating the uninsured as Medicaid is expanded and has no provision in it for continuing those subsidies in states that don’t expand Medicaid — a situation not foreseen when the law was passed.

However, closures of rural hospitals also occur in states with insurance expansion. Massachusetts, the first state to enact universal health coverage, is the scene of an ongoing battle over the abrupt closure of North Adams Regional Hospital .

When small community hospitals close, it is often an emotional blow to the town, even if the closure makes financial sense for both payors and providers. Vidant Health, Inc., the owner of Vidant Pungo Hospital noted in a statement earlier this year that it had tried to transfer control of the hospital to the town, an agreement arrived at earlier to try to keep the hospital open. However, it became clear that the town was not ready to take over the hospital.

"Since April 1, Vidant Health has worked extensively to assist the town with its request to transfer ownership of Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven,” said Roger Robertson, president of Vidant Community Hospitals in the June 30, 2014, statement . “Vidant Health has continued to operate the hospital for the agreed upon 90 days and has fulfilled all of its obligations outlined in the mediation agreement.”

Mayor O’Neal’s walk does not have a specific objective, other than to draw national attention to the hospital’s closure and seek a way to re-open it. According to the website set up to cover the walk, he hopes to meet with President Obama and other federal officials when he reaches the capitol, but does not have appointments set up with them. He anticipates that his walk will take two weeks and is tweeting about his progress from the account @MayorONeal with the hashtag #saveourhospital.

So far, his efforts have drawn national media attention from MSNBC, theHuffington Post and the Wall Street Journal .

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