Adam O’Neal, Republican Mayor of Belhaven, North Carolina, set out from the recently closed hospital in his town on Monday morning on a 14-day odyssey walking the 273 miles to Washington D.C. hoping to bring attention to the plight of small rural towns such as his when it comes to healthcare.
North Carolina is one of the states that has thrown a monkey wrench into the works of the ACA (Obamacare) by refusing to expand Medicaid, leaving many of those the law was intended to help out in the cold. It is the failure to expand Medicaid that has been blamed for the closure of the Vidant Pungo Hospital which served a largely poor population many feel that had Medicaid been expanded the hospital would have taken in sufficient revenue to keep its doors open.
While his party objects to the Medicaid expansion provision of the law, Mayor O’Neal is making his walk to Washington to draw attention to the problem and encourage Congress to do something.
In an op-ed in the Beaufort Observer last week the Mayor took the not-for-profit Vidant to task for closing his town’s hospital:
“On my trip to Washington, D.C., I will be asking for our government to enact laws that stop slick tricks from being used to close Critical Access Hospitals. Not for Profit companies that make $100,000,000 in a year shouldn’t be able to close a hospital like Belhaven’s they own for a new immoral business plan. Not for Profit companies that have $550,000,000 in reserves shouldn’t be able to rip out a communities Critical Access Hospital and keep their Non for Profit designation.“
O’Neal has used the death of a local resident, 48-year-old Portia Gibbs, as an example of why his community needs its hospital. Gibbs died of a heart attack while awaiting the arrival of a helicopter to transport her to the nearest trauma center 75 miles away. Although medical personnel say that Gibbs would most likely have died anyway, her family is angry as are many others in the community.
Joining the Mayor on the first leg of his journey were members of both the North Carolina and Beaufort chapter of the NAACP. They and the Mayor have suggested that the closing of Vidant Pungo may have been a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because closing the hospital disproportionately affected the African American community which relied heavily on the hospital for healthcare.
The NAACP filed a complaint earlier this year on those grounds and a compromise was negotiated through the Department of Justice to transfer control of the hospital and keep it open. After the agreement fell apart, the complaint was re-filed.
Belhaven’s plight is not an isolated case, smaller hospitals in rural areas are closing at an alarming rate, according to O’Neal more rural hospitals have closed in the last year across the nation than in the previous 15 years.