PENDER COUNTY — After commissioners voted last month against using a third-party consultant for a new healthcare provider search for its Burgaw hospital, it backpedaled its decision at Monday’s meeting.
Commissioners voted 3-2 in September against the move to hire Juniper Advisory, a consulting firm out of Chicago. Instead, they decided to handle the search internally. But Monday night, everyone except Chair Fred McCoy agreed utilizing an outside source to guide the county through the process was the way forward.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people and haven’t found anybody that thought it was a good idea to spend $850,000,” McCoy said of the contract originally proposed by Juniper.
Commissioner vice chair Jackie Newton, who has been an advocate for an outside search firm, told Port City Daily: “This decision is far too important not to enlist the services of experts in the field to guide us so that we have an opportunity to seek the most optimal outcome for healthcare in Pender County.”
NHRMC has an agreement with Pender County — who owns the 3.7-acre facility hospital at 507 E. Fremont St. — to operate its hospital for the last 23 years. It serves patients in Pender, southern Duplin, eastern Bladen, and western and southern Onslow counties. Commissioners have been seeking a change in its healthcare provider for three years.
When the Winston-Salem hospital giant bought New Hanover Regional Medical Center in 2021, the Pender Memorial contract came with the buy. The county’s operating agreement with Novant for Pender Medical Center expires next summer and commissioners want to explore alternative options.
At its Sept. 6 meeting, they discussed awarding $850,000 to Juniper Advisory to act as a project director. Two-thirds of the money would be for Juniper to transition the hospital to a new provider, explained commissioner David Piepmeyer, who was for the consulting firm’s help.
“They will not only help us with the selection and identification but also the transition,” he said at last month’s meeting. “This is a major, major ordeal. … This is an effort to select an independent, knowledgeable firm to help us through probably one of the most important decisions to our citizens, our healthcare provider.”
Commissioner Jimmy Tate and McCoy said Juniper’s price tag was too high of a burden to put on taxpayers. Tate also said residents should have a voice, rather than just vote to bring in an outside entity from an out-of-state city.
“I’m a proponent of consultants on certain things, and it has nothing to do with Novant, but what I’m looking at is the taxpayer’s money,” he said during last month’s meeting.
Commissioner George Brown wanted to stick with Novant and find a way to hash out a new agreement.
According to county manager David Andrews, staff began organizing an internal search and devised a proposed draft plan to kick things off mid-November, including reviewing its current agreement with Novant, identifying areas of concerns and performing a financial analysis on the hospital and conducting research on any potential partners.
In the weekly agenda packet for the Oct. 17 meeting, Piepmeyer requested an update on progress. He emailed Andrews and McCoy on Oct. 5 seeking a plan to “identify, evaluate, select and transition to a healthcare provider” before the contract expires July 17, 2023.
“I’d like to know who’s going to be responsible for managing this project, what the scope is of that project and what the timeline is,” he told fellow commissioners and staff Oct. 3. Piepmeyer also inquired when the request for quotes from healthcare providers would be put out for bid.
He suggested hosting public comment sessions next month to hear firsthand from residents how they feel about Pender hospital and what changes they’d like to see with local healthcare services.
It appears commissioners exchanged emails earlier in the day, as referenced by Brown during Monday’s meeting, to encourage the assistance of a third-party. Port City Daily put in a public records request to Pender County Aug. 8 asking for internal emails regarding Novant Health; however, the county has not yet provided documents.
“We’re not experts in this role and it’s important we have someone come in and help us with this part of the process,” Brown said at Monday’s meeting.
Tate, who was vocal against the move last month, said the long-term decision needed careful scrutiny since it impacts many people. Thus he was now in favor of seeking consulting assistance.
“This is a generational decision,” Newton added. “We can’t make a mistake.”
Andrews agreed to reach back out to Juniper first and discuss issues the county had with their fees being expensive. He also agreed to re-bid the consultant work to other agencies, if needed.
Newton said Juniper offered an hourly basis fee for reconsideration, which commissioners may consider, since it wouldn’t tie them into a flat fee. They could hire the firm as-needed.
County attorney Trey Thurman noted one of the representatives of Juniper offered free advice in the short-term while commissioners decide which path to take.
“Whoever the consultant is selected to help us, I want to be sure would not have a financial interest in the outcome,” Andrews said.
The county will host public information sessions next month on the process of searching for a new provider. Newton told PCD earlier in the summer the current provider search is not propelled by recent issues Novant NHRMC has been facing. Both she and Piepmeyer said the board simply wants to explore every possibility in Pender hospital’s future.
Piepmeyer also said the county gets paid only $50,000 annually for New Hanover County to use Pender’s hospital, which he said “is not to the county’s benefit.”
“Somebody should be upset about that,” he added. “And they don’t provide very many services. Everyone has to end up going to Wilmington.”
Pender County is the fifth-fastest growing in the state and competitive healthcare is an “economic driver,” according to Newton.
She also noted Pender needs more services, and commissioners want to figure out what exactly those might be. “Costs associated with the increasing population are almost crippling us,” Newton added.
Though she told PCD Tuesday, under the direction of president Ruth Glaser, Pender Memorial has offered quality services.
“I’m very satisfied with this course of action,” Newton said about seeking an outside firm. “Even if at the end of the day Novant turns out to be the most appropriate healthcare management provider, at least we will have made the decision with objective counseling to make that judgment.”
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