WILMINGTON — A non-profit group formed to oppose the sale of the county-owned New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) is concerned that members of the recently-formed Partnership Advisory Group (PAG) will be locked into making a recommendation based on a confidential document — an argument the hospital has pushed back against.
The requirement handcuffs the PAG from making an informed decision, according to Save Our Hospital, Inc. founders. This leaves the ultimate choice to potentially sell the county’s largest employer up to a select few individuals who have already ‘squandered’ the public trust in the intent to sell process, the group asserts.
“It’s been in secrecy, it’s been confidential, behind the scenes, it has not been a public process at all,” Gene Merritt, Save Our Hospital, Inc.’s founder, said in a press conference Wednesday. “So there’s a great deal of mistrust with anyone who does things in secrecy and does things in a hurry.”
Hospital officials acknowledged that some specific parts of the strategic plan are confidential, but deny the entire plan is secretive. NHRMC and county officials — including County Manager and PAG member Chris Coudriet — have confirmed that while the PAG can discuss which parts of the strategic plan can be addressed best by different partnerships, the plan itself is not up for debate.
Strategic plan confidentiality
Responses to a Request for Proposals are expected this month. The PAG does not have the authority to make the ultimate decision — New Hanover County Commissioners do. Commissioners are expected to make a decision on the hospital’s new fate, whether it be a sale or some form of partnership with a yet-to-be-identified outside agency, after the November election — however it remains unclear if sitting but outgoing (i.e. ‘lame duck’) commissioners will vote before the year’s end, or the new board (which will have at least two new members) will vote on the issue in 2021.
Still, the 21-member PAG, comprised of various experienced stakeholders, will recommend which path to choose. Merritt said the non-profit recently learned PAG members must make a decision that coincides with the NHRMC Strategic Plan. He has expressed concerns that previous suggestions on how to address meeting the plan’s goals without a sale — including a restructuring that maintained local ownership — have already been discounted as not solving all of the potential issues the hospital will face in the future. Because the PAG cannot address changing the plan itself, Merritt said he feels the group will ultimately not be allowed to truly address remaining independent.
More recently, Merritt has added he is concerned about the secrecy of the NHRMC strategic plan, claiming this plan is a confidential document that few PAG members have access to.
NHRMC response to confidentiality, PAG scope concerns
According to NHRMC, “Plans for specific areas of growth are confidential because they’re strategic in nature and publicly disclosing them could put us at a disadvantage in future negotiations. “
These specific areas could include potential real estate deals or contracts with other health care providers — but NHRMC did not provide specifics. However, officials were clear there was “no confidential plan,” in the sense of a single document prohibited from being released publicly (there is a publicly available ‘one-sheeter,’ giving a very general outline of the plan). Instead, officials have said, the plan has emerged over time in multiple conversations between stakeholders (including NHRMC staff, providers and members of the NHRMC Board of Trustees).
According to NHRMC spokesperson Carolyn Fisher,” The NHRMC Partnership Advisory Group has been discussing the strategic plan since their first meeting in October. Details of plan initiatives, progress within them, and where additional support could accelerate efforts have been part of every meeting and formed the basis for the goals and objectives approved by the Advisory Group at their December 19 meeting.“
According to Fisher, “goals [in the plan] include advancing the value, scope and quality of care while making it more accessible and equitable for all those NHRMC serves. There are also goals around engaging staff, partnering with providers, and ensuring the long-term strength of the system through financial security and effective governance.
Fisher said that NHRMC will continue to move forward with all aspects of the plan, regardless of what the PAG and county decide to do; however, the timing and extent of those moves will depend on the “support and flexibility” provided by future partnerships and potential restructuring, Fisher said.
Fisher, Coudriet, and other county and NHRMC officials have maintained that the PAG remains free to vote to make no changes or minor adjustments — although the prevailing suggestion has been that these choices could have negative financial repercussions for the hospital. In part, this is because — according to Fisher and others — the strategic plan allows the NHRMC to continue to reach new markets in the surrounding county, bringing revenue into the core services of hospital.
Next moves for Save Our Hospital
Should the hospital move forward with a sale, Merritt said the group has legal counsel and is actively considering litigation. He cited HCA’s contentious $1.5 billion purchase of Mission Health in Asheville, a deal the Attorney General intervened in. Save Our Hospital has been in contact with the Attorney General’s Office, Merritt said, and has been informed the state won’t get involved until a deal is on the table.
NHRMC has recently produced an ad campaign that highlights the PAG’s work. The ads, which NHRMC plans to spend $245,000 on, were released in a likely response to ads released by the State Employee Association that featured State Treasurer Dale Folwell. SEANC’s ads speculated the secretive hospital deal would increase public employee’s bills by 900%, among other claims (which Port City Daily fact-checked here).
In the ads, PAG co-chair Spence Broadhurst and former mayor of Wilmington states “ask those who would try to exploit this issue for political gain to stop.” Merritt said this call-to-action amounts to qualifying as a political ad itself. Non-profits are prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigning, per Internal Revenue Service regulations (IRS).
“The inference that the ad says is two things: one is, leave the PAG alone and let them do their job. Who is standing in the way of the PAG?” Merritt said. This is ironic, he said, because the PAG is not able to do its job because of the confidentiality of the Strategic Plan the group is required to consider. Another irony is the reference to political gain, Meritt said. “The very people who started all this did it for political gain, for goodness sake — the County Commissioners. What’s more political than that?”
Still, Merritt conceded even if the ads don’t constitute an IRS violation, he said they are disingenuous. “Whether it’s political or not, it’s an inappropriate ad.”
Broadhurst and PAG co-chair Barb Biehner defended the ad as necessary, citing the “rampant misinformation.” Broadhurst said he didn’t think the PAG ad was political, but noted he thought the ad placed be SEANC definitely was.
Save Our Hospitals plans to host a public meeting ahead of PAG’s final recommendation. For more information on the PAG process, NHRMC keeps all public information, including minutes, audio, and presentations, relating to the potential sale or partnership process here. Those interested can sign up for email updates here.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org