County to consider sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center; Commissioners respond

Updated: Jul. 23, 2019 at 10:30 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - After 52 years as a public hospital, New Hanover Regional Medical Center could be headed for new ownership.

On September 3, the New Hanover County Commission will consider a resolution “to explore new ownership opportunities” of the hospital system in what officials call a “proactive step” to evaluate the future of healthcare in southeastern North Carolina.

According to a release, the county and hospital will consider whether a larger healthcare system could provide a stronger financial future for the medical center than the county can.

NHRMC is the only hospital of its size in the state to be publicly owned but receive no tax subsidies. It is also the largest single employer in the region, with more than 7,000 employees throughout the system, according to an April 2019 report by the hospital.

The hospital’s 2018 financial documents put the system’s total assets at around $1 billion — a figure also thrown out at a meeting with the media Tuesday afternoon as an early estimate for a starting price.

“New Hanover Regional Medical Center is a true asset to our region,” New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet said in a release about the possible sale. “It has grown in scope, capabilities, quality and service and is a top employer and community partner. Our Commissioners value that and recognize the importance of ensuring access to quality healthcare, at a lower cost, as well as health equity for every person well into the future.”

If commissioners vote in favor of a resolution supporting a non-binding “intent to sell,” the county and hospital board would begin a request for proposal process.

That process would include soliciting bids from prospective “partners” based on a set criteria, defined below, according to the release:

  • Improving access to care and wellness through more consumer-centric options.
  • Advancing the value of the care we provide through higher quality and lower costs, effectively managing the health of our region to not only treat the sick but keep them well.
  • Achieving health equity through community partnerships and activities that remove barriers to care, enabling our residents to achieve their own optimal health.
  • Supporting NHRMC staff and the culture that has made NHRMC one of the top places to work in the country.
  • Partnering with providers to make southeastern North Carolina an excellent place to practice medicine so we can continue to attract talented and compassionate providers to care for our growing population.
  • Driving quality care throughout the continuum and helping facilitate transitions with other providers to deliver more seamless and coordinated care models.
  • Growing the level and scope of care already in place for all, regardless of ability to pay.
  • Investing to ensure the long-term financial security and future of our health system.

The goal, President and CEO of NHRMC John Gizdic said in the released statement, is to provide the same or better services while dealing with the changing landscape of healthcare.

“We’re clinically, financially and operationally strong today, but we recognize that to prepare for an uncertain future, we need to consider new ways to support investments in the people, technology and services that can make a significant difference in the health of our community,” Gizdic said.

Ahead of the September 3 meeting, NHRMC and the county commission will be holding two public meetings to give the community an opportunity to weight in.

  • Monday, Aug. 19, 6-7:30 p.m., Northeast Regional Library, 1241 Military Cutoff Rd
  • Tuesday, Aug. 20, 8:30-10 a.m., Senior Resource Center, 2222 South College Rd

If the county decides to go forward with the RFP process, the selection of a potential new owner could take more than a year.

“Our County Commissioners are committed to the health and well-being of the community and recognize their role in ensuring NHRMC’s future,” Coudriet said. “NHRMC and New Hanover County will work together to chart the best path forward, whether that’s with a new partner or maintaining the current county ownership.”

Ahead of the Sept. 3 meeting, members of the county commission are already considering the potential sale, as well as what the county could do with the proceeds.

Vice-Chair Julia Olsen-Boseman said she is already in favor of moving ahead with the RFP process, and plans to vote in favor of the proposal.

“The options and opportunities are limitless with this," she said, likening the opportunity to “having your cake and eating it too.”

Boseman said in her mind, the sale would allow healthcare opportunities in the region to grow, while also providing a sizable infusion of capital for the county to work with.

“So at the same time, not only are we going to invest in healthcare, but we are going to invest in the rest of the community that we so need, with the treatment centers, with mental health, with public safety," she said. "It’s just such an opportunity that I’m extremely excited about.”

Commissioner Woody White did not go as far as to say he has already decided to support the RFP process, but said he does think it’s past time to look at a new model for the hospital system.

“With the drastic changes undergoing [with] healthcare, for politicians and governments to be running hospitals is just a dinosaur theory, and it’s a throwback to an age that doesn’t exist anymore," he said, "and so we are asking the questions that we have the legal responsibility to ask.”

White said he would hope the proceeds would be directed to combating the opioid crisis, building up county schools and reducing the county’s debt.

Commissioner Rob Zapple, however, said he is not convinced.

Zapple was unable to attend the session with media Tuesday, but said in a phone call he has been following the developments thanks to county staff.

“I have serious questions," Zapple said, saying he finds the interest in selling to have come up suddenly.

Zapple believes if the system would be attractive to outside buyers, it should remain attractive to the county.

His main concerns, he said, are with the employees and people who rely on NHRMC services, and said he is worried about the consequences down the road.

“It’s the long term," Zapple said. "There may be some short-term gain that we can get out of it, but that pales when you compare that to what having a strong healthcare system in our community means to us now and in the future.”

Still, Zapple said he is open to the discussion, as long as people remain the priority.

“I want to make sure that it’s the citizens interests that come first,” Zapple said.

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