Sunday, August 7, 2022

Update: Non-profit formed to oppose NHRMC sale; hospital asks community to ‘keep an open mind’

Gene Merritt, founder of Save Our Hospital, Inc. at a press conference in downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo / Ben Schachtman)

Update Wednesday 1 p.m. — At a press conference held in downtown Wilmington, Save Our Hospital, Inc. founder Gene Merritt offered more pointed criticism of the process by which the hospital and the county have so far explored a potential sale of the hospital.

Merritt suggested there was already a Request for Proposals authored behind the scenes that the hospital’s Partnership Advisory Group (PAG) would merely ‘rubber stamp.’ Merritt called for an independent audit of the hospital’s situation as well as an outside consultant on the process. While he did not offer details, Merritt did rule out a civil injunction in the immediate future as part of an attempt to prevent a sale.

Wednesday evening, prior to a meeting of the PAG co-chairs Spence Broadhurst and Barbara Biehner again denied categorically that there were any pre-existing agreements or deals of any kind. Biehner noted, “we’re at the very beginning of this process, nowhere near the end.”

WILMINGTON — Save Our Hospital, Inc., officially formed last week, plans a formal announcement tomorrow to provide specifics on a plan to oppose the sale of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC). The hospital is asking residents to ‘keep an open mind’ and trust its advisory group.

Related: Deep Dive: Here’s what the ‘uncharted waters’ of NHRMC’s potential sale look like

The non-profit was formed by Eugene ‘Gene’ Merritt, Jr., for the expressed purpose of educating the public on what he sees as the danger of a sale or corporate takeover of the hospital. Merrit has expressed skepticism that the hospital has sincerely explored a ‘no sale’ option. He further argued that the hospital and the county could have ‘explored options’ without signing the ‘intent to sell process,’ and that the NHRMC and New Hanover County have been “secretive, non-communicative, and non-inclusive,” in their efforts.

Merritt voiced concerns, echoed by many experts in the field, that selling the hospital — regardless of whether it’s to a non-profit or for-profit company — will result in higher costs and lower quality for healthcare; in addition, Merritt argues that a strategic partnership, which NHRMC has suggested in the past, would also “likely lead to an eventual takeover.”

It’s not the first time Merritt has gotten involved with a local issue. In the early 1980s, Merritt was in charge of Downtown Area Revitalization Effort (DARE), the precursor to the current Wilmington Downtown Incorporated. Merritt, along with a coalition of residents, were hard at work bringing the downtown out of a post-industrial slump, and fighting capital flight to the newly constructed mall and other parts of the city. 

At the same time, a Kentucky-based coal company announced it wanted to use the Almont Shipping Company site — the current home of PPD, the Port City Marina, and the future Live Nation arena at the city’s North Waterfront Park — to dump around a million tons of coal annually before reshipping it through the port. Merritt ultimately used an obscure 1917 state law to trigger a voter initiative that blocked the plan.

Merritt stated that Save Our Hospital, Inc. would not engage in ‘partisan political matters,’ but would focus only on the hospital issue. He plans a press conference on Wednesday, November 20, at 12:15 p.m. on the steps of the New Hanover County Courthouse (on North Third Street) in downtown Wilmington. You can find more information on the group’s Facebook page.

NHRMC response: ‘Keep an open mind’

In response to Merritt’s announcement, NHRMC issued the following statement:

On Monday, an announcement was made that a new corporation is being formed for the sole purpose of opposing a public evaluation of all options for strengthening healthcare in this region.

Organized opposition to any form of potential partnership or affiliation, without knowledge of what it could bring to this region, threatens to overshadow and minimize the critical work being done by a group of citizens who have volunteered their time to carefully explore how to support NHRMC in fulfillment of its mission.

The 21-member Partnership Advisory Group, with representatives from across our community, has just begun its work to understand the issues at stake in this important question. No proposals have been solicited or received to provide a basis for assuming the right course of action.

We urge all members of the community to refrain from a rush to judgment and allow the Partnership Advisory Group to do its work, evaluating all options, considering all facts, and making a recommendation for the NHRMC Board of Trustees, New Hanover County Commissioners, and public to review and thoughtfully consider, with an open mind and a determination to do what is right.

This work will be shared through public meetings and on www.nhrmcfuture.org. Sign up online to receive email updates throughout the process.

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