NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - In one of the most controversial decisions in recent memory, a divided New Hanover County Commission voted 3-2 on Monday to explore the sale of the county-owned hospital, New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC). As expected, commissioners Woody White, Julia Boseman, and Pat Kusek voted in favor of the resolution of intent to sell. Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple voted against it.
Following the vote, the county issued a news release that stated “the resolution authorizes the establishment of a Partnership Advisory Group to help develop priorities for the Request for Proposal (RFP), evaluate the proposals received, and provide a recommendation on next steps to the Board of Commissioners and NHRMC Board of Trustees. The group will include county, hospital, physician, nonprofit and community leaders and be reflective of the community’s diversity of individuals and interests.”
It has been a huge source of angst for patients, employees, and medical professionals ever since the county announced the possibility of a sale on July 23. Hundreds of residents attended public meetings about the proposed sale over the summer, the vast majority voicing grave concern about a sale. On Monday, Wilmington Senator Harper Peterson sent a letter to the state Attorney General, questioning the legality of some of the county’s actions so far in regard to the proposed hospital sale, and requesting a “review of all actions, internal communications, outside contracts and contacts, and clandestine relationships by NHC and NHRMC relevant to this matter, prior to and after July 23....”
Concerns ranged from a decline in quality of care, to increased costs to patients, to the potential negative impacts for the 7,000 employees of NHRMC. Employees have wondered what new ownership could mean for their pensions, and members of the community at large have contacted WECT about cautionary tales from other markets where there have been healthcare mergers and acquisitions.
Despite seemingly overwhelming opposition to the sale, Commissioners Julia Boseman, Woody White and Patricia Kusek have consistently stated the desire to test the waters and see what offers might come from outside hospital groups interested in expanding to southeastern North Carolina. Some have estimated the sale could bring $1 billion into the county coffers.
NHRMC’s Board of Trustees has also supported the sale, and the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce hosted a meeting where NHRMC’s CEO John Gizdic and County Manager Chris Coudriet pitched the benefits of selling the hospital.
Proponents of the sale site the unpredictable landscape of healthcare. NHRMC is financially strong now, generating over a billion dollars in revenue last year. Hospital executives say it’s imperative to explore the sale from a position of strength, rather than waiting until a possible financial decline to look for buyers. County officials say NHRMC is the largest publicly-owned hospital in the country that does not rely on public subsidies. NHRMC executives say the current business model is not sustainable.
Monday’s vote approving the resolution of intent to sell the hospital does not require the county to sell. Commissioner Woody White has said if he learns bringing in an outside company to run the hospital would mean a decline in quality of care, he would not support the sale. Novant, HCA Healthcare, Atrium, and UNC Healthcare have all been mentioned as possible suitors or partners.