Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Update: Save Our Hospital sues to block NHRMC sale to Novant until public records request is fulfilled

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

Update Wednesday 2 p.m. — Superior Court Judge Phyllis Gorham heard arguments today but did not make a decision on whether or not to issue a 10-day temporary restraining order (which would allow time to consider the other, longer injunctions requested by Save Our Hospital). Judge Gorham said she would notify all parties as soon as possible of her decision.

Also on Wednesday, the county and NHRMC released a motion opposing Save Our Hospital’s request for a restraining order. Both parties argue that they have been complying with Save Our Hospital’s records requests, and that the organization has, at times, been non-responsive to offers for so-called ‘rolling production,’ which would deliver documents as they become available. Both parties also note the onerous size of Save Our Hospital’s requests.

WILMINGTON — The Save Our Hospital organization filed a complaint in Superior Court today seeking legal action to compel New Hanover County and the New Hanover Regional Medical Center to turn over documents as part of a public records request.

The legal filing asks the court to grant a series of legal injunctions to prevent New Hanover County from completing the sale of NHRMC to Novant Health until Save Our Hospital receives documents requested under North Carolina public records law (you can find the complete filing at the end of this article).

The filing claims that the county has “not provided a single document since requested” and that NHRMC has “obstructed, through its attorneys, compliance with lawful requests of public records.” Neither defendant, according to the complaint, have made legal objections to the request.

Save Our Hospital contends in its filing that the defendants have declined to provide “rolling production” (i.e. producing documents as they become available) and, overall, intend to delay the production of any documents until after a September 28 vote to finalize the sale of NHRMC to Novant — a date three days before the deadline set by Save Our Hospital for its public records request.

The non-profit Save Our Hospital group was created in November to oppose the sale of NHRMC, but over time President Gene Merritt had shifted his focus to the sale process. Merritt has criticized what he sees as a lack of transparency and meaningful public involvement.

In a press statement released on Tuesday, Merritt wrote, “We were formed as a result of the actions of the New Hanover County Commissioners when they announced their intent to sell New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Their decision to sell was done in secret. Since that time, the process of evaluating various proposals to sell or partner has been completed with no public conversation. A public hearing does not constitute conversation. Holding meetings in which questions are allowed, after a decision has been made, is not a conversation.”

In a statement, NHRMC rejected Save Our Hospital’s allegations.

“NHRMC has responded promptly to multiple requests for public documents throughout the partnership exploration from Save Our Hospital, elected officials and members of the media. We have consistently responded to each of these requests as quickly and openly as possible. The fourth and latest request from the attorney for Save Our Hospital, dated August 11, 2020, calls for hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and emails and will take some time to complete,” according to NHRMC Director of Marketing & Public Relations Carolyn Fisher.

“New Hanover Regional Medical Center has at all times fully complied with the laws governing public records requests. The unprecedented level of transparency of the partnership evaluation was noted by Ponder and Associates in its evaluation presented to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners on July 13. We strongly disagree with the claims asserted in the lawsuit and look forward to addressing them with the Court,” Fisher wrote.

The county does not typically comment on pending litigation, but did offer a short statement:

“The public is encouraged to continue remaining engaged in this process to explore and evaluate opportunities for NHRMC. A third public hearing will be held on Monday, September 28 at 5 pm for additional input (comments can also be submitted ahead of time), and our community can stay educated on the details of the proposed agreement, use of net proceeds, and the in-depth documentation from the 14-month evaluation process by visiting”

Other officials, including New Hanover County Board Chair Julia Olson-Boseman, County Manager Chris Coudriet, NHRMC President John Gizdic, and others have also refuted charges that the sale process has lacked transparency or that it has been unduly rushed.

Not all public officials are on board, though. Last fall, the City of Wilmington passed a resolution asking the county to slow down the sale process. Last week, County Commissioner Rob Zapple’s opinion piece, listing 10 questions that need to be answered before he felt a sale would be appropriate, ran in StarNews.

Save Our Hospital’s records requests

Since November, Save Our Hospital has filed at least seven public records requests, including an initial request in November asking for contracts and payment details for the hospital’s strategic consultant, Navigant, and PR firm, Jarrard, agreements about compensation for NHRMC President and CEO John Gizdiz, and any agreements with NHRMC board members in the event of sale (so-called “golden parachute” agreements), and other contractual agreements.

Save Our Hospital has also requested NHRMC’s ‘strategic plan,’ an instrumental document used to guide the parameters of the sale exploration. Related documents include the basis for a claim, made by NHRMC and the county, that if not sold county funding would be needed to support the hospital, necessitating a 68% property tax increase — a move Merritt called a scare tactic. On the flip side, the group also requested any documents showing the impact of healthcare quality and cost in the region in the event of a sale.

Save Our Hospital more recently requested information on any potential conflicts of interest, the independent evaluation of NHRMC and its assets, and information about how Covid-19 may have impacted the fiduciary duty of those steering the sale exploration process.


In his statement, Merritt said “there are many questions that have gone unanswered during this process. We represent the people of New Hanover County and southeastern North Carolina who are served by NHRMC. We represent the public’s right to know the answers to these questions. We deserve the right to know how this process began and what the justification for selling is. To date, we have only been spoon-fed information and vague justifications for selling.”

To that end, Save Our Hospital’s filing argues that the people of New Hanover County will “suffer irreparable harm” if the hospital is sold “without all of the public records and information” sought by the group over the last ten months.

The filing clarifies that Save Our Hospital does not seek to stop the sale “for an unlimited period of time” but only for as long as it takes to produce and review the records at issue.

The filing thus asks for a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction, and then a permanent injunction — all of which would effectively block the sale of NHRMC to Novant until the documents are produced.

A virtual hearing is expected on the request for injunctions tomorrow morning.

Note: On Tuesday afternoon, both NHRMC and New Hanover County were contacted for comment on Save Our Hospital’s complaint. Due to the nature of the story, the request for comment was on short notice. Both generally refrain from commenting on pending litigation, but any comment received will be added to this article or future reporting.

Save Our Hospital – Filed Complaint and Injunction Request by Ben Schachtman on Scribd

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