Save Our Hospital Says PAG Has Gone From Suspect To Savior

Feb 27, 2020

New Hanover Regional Medical Center is the third-largest county-owned hospital in the country.  As medical costs continue to rise and political and financial uncertainties loom, NHRMC is exploring the best path forward – whether that’s a sale, a merger, or a reorganization.  On this week’s CoastLine, we explored the process.

Gene Merritt and Alex Hall launched the non-profit organization Save Our Hospital late last year to oppose any loss of local control of New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

RLH: Gene Merritt, why do you think selling NHRMC is such a bad idea?

Gene Merritt:  Well, based on all of the research that we have done, and we have quite a few intelligent people helping us and knowledgeable in this field -- we feel that selling the hospital outright would create a loss of jobs, higher prices for healthcare and possibly a lower quality of service. Those are the things that we fear the most…

For Merritt and the Save our Hospital group, skepticism towards the Partnership Advisory Group--the body charged with exploring all the available options for the hospital – has changed to a more positive view. Alex Hall says they appreciate the fact that the PAG is actively involving the public.

Alex Hall:  I'll tell you the, the PAG has been very responsive to any of our requests to meet with us. They are considering all options despite resistance from the County Manager to do that. I believe that they are going to explore all options. And so we have a lot of faith in the PAG. In fact, they're our savior, in my opinion.

But Merritt still has other concerns. He says officials are not looking closely enough at the way technology will affect the need for brick-and-mortar facilities.

GM:  As we understand it, a lot of health care is going to be conducted no longer in buildings. A lot of it's going to be done through artificial intelligence and through the internet. People are going to start taking their own blood pressure at home. They're going to be doing blood tests at home…// So the need for bricks and mortars is most likely not to be the same as it has been in the past.

Co-Chairs Barb Biehner and Spence Broadhurst spoke about the role of the Partnership Advisory Group and what they say are public misconceptions about the process.

BARB BIEHNER:  It's very clear that we are to present options to both the New Hanover Regional Board as well as the County as to what the hospital should look like going forward and not just one option. And I'm going to put it right on the table right now -- and it is not to sell the hospital. That is not our goal is not what our purpose is. //

The Partnership Advisory Group has hired Ponder Financial, an independent consultant, to outline the current and future economic outlook – and what that might mean for a sale or merger of the hospital. They presented some concerns at the February meeting.   

RLH: So much of the case that Ponder makes is based on speculative partisan outcomes. You’re talking about whether there will be more uninsured people, the possible evaporation of the 340b federal dollars, lack of Medicaid expansion in the state. If you explore those outcomes in an analysis, why wouldn't you also, if you're really looking at this objectively, explore the opposite partisan outcome and what kind of a picture that paints? 

Spence Broadhurst: 

SB:  Right. And I think that's the core of why we're here -- why we’re having this conversation.  There are so many variables out there. Ponder outlines the financial variables, but there are also political variables as you just described there. There are community variables there. There are so many variables out there that I believe that has driven the discussion that has driven us to discussion. And we're not gonna have answers for those variables… Our charge is to make a recommendation to the trustees and the commissioners that puts the, the medical center in a position to be flexible enough to handle the variables regardless of the impact they have on the medical center. // 

BB: Well, and I have to say one more thing. The cost of healthcare is not going down right now. No matter whether someone's sold or merged or partnered every day you turn around, the cost of healthcare is going up.