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NHRMC chief physician executive out as Novant’s two-year layoff moratorium ends

Vince Winkel

Dr. Philip Brown announced on social media that his role had been “eliminated by a system-wide reduction.” Novant said only a small number of people were affected, but wouldn’t directly address whether more layoffs were coming. The hospital system also announced a system-wide increase in its minimum wage.

On Wednesday, Dr. Philip Brown announced that, as of the beginning of this week, he was no longer employed by Novant Health.

Brown served as New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s chief physician executive and executive vice president. He was formerly the hospital’s chief of staff but took on a more public-facing role as NHRMC’s chief community impact officer after Novant completed its purchase of the hospital two years ago. In that role, Brown was outspoken on housing, food insecurity, and other issues affecting marginalized and low-income residents.

A Novant spokesperson confirmed Brown's departure, saying that the company “recently made the difficult decision to scale back certain departments across the organization. This impacted fewer than 50 people systemwide, which includes over 35,000 team members.” Novant did not specify how many of those cuts took place at NHRMC compared to Novant's other facilities.

Novant cited the “lingering effects of the pandemic and its impact on the costs of providing care" as an impetus for the decision.

According to the spokesperson, Novant appreciates Brown’s work, wishes him well, and remains committed to “advancing our health equity work in the Wilmington area, utilizing other team members.”

Asked if there would be additional layoffs, Novant responded, “[w]e are doing everything we can to strengthen Novant Health for the future while minimizing the impact to our teams. We appreciate the trust that our patients place in our providers and teams and look forward to continuing to care for the Carolinas for years to come.”

The question of layoffs is particularly relevant at NHRMC because, as part of the sale agreement with New Hanover County, Novant agreed to a two-year moratorium on layoffs (with a few exceptions). Novant confirmed that the moratorium officially expires next Wednesday on February 1 — two years to the date after the sale officially closed in 2021.

The question of Novant’s finances is not a clear-cut one. The company has publicly struggled with staffing at NHRMC and top officials acknowledged the hospital relied too heavily on traveling nurses — who were paid considerably more than regular staff — to keep things running. This decision proved both financially unsustainable and deeply corrosive to morale. Highlighting the financial impact, Novant Executive Vice President John Gizdic, who was NHRMC’s CEO prior to the sale, told reporters last September, "as I understand it, there's not a hospital in North Carolina that is making money this year."

But, according to a report released by State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s office last June, Novant has also seen increased profits during the pandemic. Following the report’s release, Folwell called on hospitals to use those profits to drive down costs — or else return “taxpayer-funded relief dollars.” The North Carolina Healthcare Association, which represents the state’s hospitals, issued a statementcalling the report “politically motivated” and accused it of “falsely demonizing” hospital systems, including Novant.

Related: Seven North Carolina hospital systems had record profits during COVID, report says (WFAE)

At the same time as it made the system-wide position cuts that led to Brown’s dismissal, Novant also announced a $100 million investment in staff salaries that, in part, will raise the hospital system’s minimum wage from $15 to $17 per hour.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.