Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Under Novant, NHRMC significantly expands access to free care; minimum wage also increasing

Built in 1967, New Hanover Regional Medical Center is now owned by Novant Health. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — It may be years before Novant delivers on some of the improvements in healthcare services and access laid out in its purchase agreement with New Hanover Regional Medical Center, but a big one went into effect when the sale closed Feb. 1.

Although there are conditions, Novant has a company-wide policy that no one earning less than 300% of the federal poverty level ever receives a bill for services. (Details, conditions and an application can be found here.) Prior to the sale, the income threshold for charitable care at NHRMC had been 200% of the federal poverty level.

The current poverty level for a family of four is $26,500, making the 300% threshold $79,500.

It’s a feature that was brought up often as Novant made its pitch to purchase county-owned NHRMC, whose 1967 articles of corporation required it to operate a hospital for “the care of the sick or afflicted who are able to pay . . . and for such others who are unable to pay, in whole of in part. . .”

RELATED: A closer look at where the money from the sale of NHRMC is going

It also was a feature mentioned prominently in Monday’s news briefing on the closing by Novant CEO Carl Amato and NHRMC CEO John Gizdic.

“Our goal has always been in every community that we serve to increase access to care and work with the local management team and local boards to prioritize that expansion,” Amato said. 

“Our first priority is to listen . . . to make sure we understand the community’s needs.”

Amato added that other Novant policies that would take effect immediately — or very soon — include implementation of the $15 minimum hourly wage.

Although North Carolina’s minimum hourly wage is $7.25, in January, Novant Health raised its company-wide minimum from $12.50 to $15. The current minimum wage at NHRMC is $12.50.

The Novant pay raise benefitted at the time about 2,000 of the approximately 30,000 employees of the Winston-Salem-based private, nonprofit healthcare system, including those at Brunswick Medical Center in Bolivia.

With the purchase of NHRMC, Novant has added about 7,000 workers to its payroll.

“A transition plan is being developed to adopt the $15 per hour minimum within the first 100 days,” a NHRMC spokesperson wrote in an email to Port City Daily on Thursday.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many local employees the increase will affect.

Unlike the minimum-wage policy, the new charitable-care guidelines went into effect immediately.

There is some flexibility/exceptions built into the charitable-care policy, including insurance status. But among its main eligibility requirements are: 

  • Hospital patients must reside in a Novant Health service area; 
  • For care received at physician clinics, the patient must have have been treated by a Novant Health Medical Group primary care provider within the previous three years; 
  • The patient must be uninsured and without substantial cash assets; 
  • Covered services include emergency and medically necessary services and not include cosmetic, elective, non-urgent tests, services or procedures, fertility services or experimental treatments.

Another project that will begin soon is the replacement of the NHRMC Orthopedic Hospital on Wrightsville Avenue.

“The current NHRMC Orthopedic Hospital remains operational and is slated to remain open until a replacement is complete, which could be in 2024,” the NHRMC spokesperson said Thursday. “The plans for a replacement are still awaiting state approval.”

Amato said moving some routine services away from the NHRMC main campus will free up space for added specialty services that Wilmington-area residents currently must travel out of town to receive.

Amato and Gizdic also addressed other early priorities, which include:

  • Expanding UNC Health specialty clinics in the Wilmington area
  • Construction of a new hospital in Scotts Hill
  • Expanding and exceeding the relationship with Pender Memorial Hospital in Burgaw
  • Developing a closer working relationship with Novant Brunswick Medical Center
  • Finding a more unified approach on Covid-19 vaccination efforts
  • Adding more ambulatory health-care centers that are closer to where patients live.

Gizdic acknowledged that Monday was mostly a day to celebrate. “Integration will take time,” he said. “We’re going to do this thoughtfully.” 

Scott Nunn is a Wilmington native and award-winning journalist with over 30 years experience. Send tips and comments to scott@localdailymedia.com

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