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The Dive: A new push for tighter AG's office oversight of the New Hanover Community Endowment

Logo for the Heal Our People's Endowment.
Logo for the Heal Our People's Endowment.

Every week, WHQR news director Ben Schachtman sits down with The Assembly's Johanna Still, to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. For this edition, a look at Heal Our People’s Endowment, a new nonprofit pushing the North Carolina Attorney General’s office to keep a closer eye on the $1.25 billion New Hanover Community Endowment.

The Dive is a free weekly newsletter jointly published by WHQR and The Assembly. You can find more information and subscribe here.

Deflated Hope

After the initial tension surrounding the 2021 sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health faded, onlookers were curious what would become of the $1.25 billion New Hanover Community Endowment that would spend the proceeds.

Even cynics seemed open to seeing things play out, and the public was patient–reverent, even–as it added board members and staff. Local nonprofit leaders didn’t dare speak ill of the most powerful group around.

The gloves are off now, after a series of public dustups have given critics fuel to try and intervene.

Leading them is a new nonprofit, Heal Our People’s Endowment (HOPE). The group wrote a letter to N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein last week requesting heightened oversight of the endowment, and launched a petition asking Stein for a public hearing and increased scrutiny of the board makeup and grant awards.

For The Dive, Johanna Still writes about a new effort to demand transparency and accountability from the New Hanover County Endowment: Read more here.

Ben Schachtman: Alright, Johanna Still, thanks for being here.

Johanna Still: Thanks for having me.

BS: Okay. This week, we are talking about a new nonprofit that has been created to ask Attorney General Josh Stein to put more scrutiny on the New Hanover community endowment — for people who haven't seen this reporting yet what's going on here?

JS: Right. So this is a new group that has basically established itself as an oversight organization over the Endowment. And this is interesting one, because, like you mentioned, it puts pressure on the Attorney General to basically enforce the guardrails he had already put in place when establishing and approving the sale of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health in 2021. And this group is self-appointed — and that part we find very interesting because if you watch the other similar hospital sale that happened in Asheville, with Mission Health, there was an independent monitor established. So where, over in Asheville, they've got this system and structure set up to monitor Dogwood, which is their equivalent of our Endowment, we have this really grassroots group that's basically established itself. Basically, this group is creating and establishing itself because they see a vacuum of oversight.

BS: Right and going back, I mean, this is being led in part by former state senator Harper Peterson, who was very critical of the hospital sale process, where New Hanover County sold New Hanover Regional Medical Center to, ultimately, Novant although there were a lot of suitors at one point. Peterson at the time, and a group Save Our Hospital filed lawsuits, to try and get documentation on what was going on. And he actually made some pretty, pretty feisty allegations at the time that rankled a lot of people in government. And I think he has remained critical of the process. He has been quiet about the Endowment for a while. But now he is pointing out a number of things, which you point out in The Dive, including the effective removal of Hannah Gage and Dr. Virginia Adams. The latter was the county's only appointee of color to the Endowment. He also notes that the largest grant in their first big grant cycle, their first strategic grant cycle, sets up a pipeline for nursing students. And while this has been generally received as a positive grant dealing with a real problem in our region, it does directly benefit Novant. And so from Peterson's point of view, this seems like a little bit of self-dealing, right?

JS: In that view, it's effectively a rebate, right? So, Novant bought the hospital, and now they're getting a big chunk of the money back in the form of workforce training. And now the counter to that point, which the chairman of the Endowment Bill Cameron told you, Ben, in December is, you know, sure, it's going to benefit Novant, but it's supposed to benefit patients, right? We want a healthcare system that's more robust, that we don't have to worry about what we had worried about back in the summer of 2022. Things really hit the fan with the hospital, other hospital systems across the state and country were also dealing with tons of issues, too. This is really a result of the fallout from the pandemic, but the resources were spread really thin. And they're the ratios from nurses to patients were really way off. And you've had a lot of people leaving the industry. So basically from a flatline point of view, there's a huge need for more healthcare workers. And so for the Endowment to choose this as a cause, you know, it certainly does make sense and from Cameron’s point of view, it's a societal good, right? It's not about nonprofit, it's not about Novant as a company — regardless Peterson and the Heal Our People’s Endowments’ overall point of view is that it's time for increased scrutiny, and it's time for increased oversight of this group. Peterson, basically says, ‘Listen, you guys have had three years to get it together. And lately, you've had this series of hiccups, speed bumps that have been pretty public, but you're also not really showing a whole bunch of transparency in discussing them.’

BS: Yeah. And he's also asking for some more public hearings about this. One of the original things that Attorney General Josh Stein did require when he approved the hospital sale, and the creation of the Endowment was at least some public meetings from the Endowment. All of the actual board meetings are still private, so I think that's still a bone of contention. The flip side of this is that, you know, there are a lot of ways you could go about addressing this issue, but going through Josh Stein requires Josh Stein to do something. And he's been somewhat hands-off. When you and I reported on the vote to put Woody White and Pat Kusek, both former Republican county commissioners who voted for the sale of a hospital onto the endowment board. This reduced the diversity that Stein had asked to see on the board. His office said they were concerned but ultimately didn't do anything. And so it remains to be seen if Stein's office has any appetite for getting into this.

JS: And one thing that I think is worth pointing out is that Peterson says, you know, this has nothing to do with Stein running for governor, which of course he is. This has more to do with the role of the attorney general. And basically this group that he has established, this is not about this current moment, it's about creating something that can oversee the Endowment in perpetuity. Right. So this is for any future person who occupies the attorney general role, it’s not just Stein.

BS: Fair enough. Yeah. I mean, the Endowment, at least if it continues to function the way it's designed to and the markets don't completely collapse, will be around forever. So some long-term oversight will be important. So definitely a story we'll be following but for now, Johanna Still, thanks for being here.

JS: Thank you.

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.
Johanna Still is The Assembly‘s Wilmington editor. She previously covered economic development for Greater Wilmington Business Journal and was the assistant editor at Port City Daily.