Belhaven mayor making 273-mile trek to DC in effort to save hospital

— The mayor of the small Beaufort County town of Belhaven is walking to Washington, D.C., in hopes of saving a local hospital.

Republican Mayor Adam O'Neal began the 14-day, 273-mile trek on Monday in an effort to save Vidant Pungo Hospital, which closed July 1, leaving approximately 23,000 residents of Hyde and eastern Beaufort counties without a hospital or emergency room.

The closest medical facility for critical care is more than 80 miles away.

O'Neal said the walk symbolizes how serious the problem is.

"I think people need to know what happened, and I think the more people that know, the more likelihood that justice will be served," he said.

 Belhaven mayorO'Neal said 48-year-old Portia Gibbs died of a heart attack July 7 while waiting for a helicopter to take her to the nearest hospital.

"She was in the back of an ambulance for an hour, sitting still in a parking lot at a high school – waiting for a helicopter instead of being on her way to get help," he said. "That's the kind of thing that's going to happen over and over again."

Once in Washington, O'Neal wants to speak with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama about the hospital shutdown.

Vidant Health System executives cited North Carolina's decision not to participate in federally funded Medicaid expansion as a factor in the decision to close the hospital.

Roger Robertson, president of Vidant Community Hospitals, said in a June 30 statement that the health system tried to work with Belhaven to have the town take over the hospital.

After multiple attempts, however, he said, "the lack of response made it apparent that the town knew that it did not have a plan to take over hospital operations."

The hospital was to be replaced with an outpatient multi-specialty clinic, but it hasn't opened yet. Medical services are being provided by two local family medical practices.

State NAACP President Rev. William Barber is throwing the organization's support behind O'Neal.

Barber, who is accompanying the mayor on the first leg of the trip, has sent a letter to federal and state leaders asking them to take action to save the hospital and to provide support for other rural healthcare systems.

Barber wants Gov. Pat McCrory and lawmakers to expand Medicaid and to draft legislation that prevents hospital corporations from shutting down health care facilities in rural areas.

"Democrats and Republicans can both get on board to save these rural hospitals – that is something that should not be controversial," said Patricial Garrison

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