Commissioner: Behind-the-scenes research on hospital sale happened months before public informed

Commissioner: Behind-the-scenes research on NHRMC sale happened months before public informed

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - One day after a divided New Hanover County commission voted in favor of an “intent to sell” resolution for the county-owned hospital, WECT is learning more about behind-the-scenes dealings that were apparently going on for months before the public was made aware of the possible sale.

County Commissioner Rob Zapple said New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) hired a consulting firm it has worked with for years to test the waters for a possible hospital sale.

“Navigant was hired back in the early spring, March or April. They were hired on early, to take a look and explore what exactly was out there in the world of healthcare systems. Would there be anyone out there interested in purchasing New Hanover Regional or a hospital the size of New Hanover Regional.” Zapple said. “It was my understanding that they didn’t specifically spell out New Hanover Regional, they just said a county-owned hospital. But in the industry, it would only take a second and a half to figure that out.”

Zapple said the commissioners were looped in one or two at a time by top hospital officials, to update them on the need for and viability of a possible hospital sale. He said commissioners met with the hospital administrators, along with County Manager Chris Coudriet, in May and then again in June to get “informational updates."

“[Commissioners] were told this was all guarded information and not to be discussed outside of this room,” Zapple added. “None of the commissioners were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, just asked to keep it guarded.”

According to emails uncovered by WECT, hospital leadership was working to schedule meetings in late May with “2 commissioners at a time.” By meeting with less than three commissioners at once, officials were not bound by public meeting laws.

Zapple said he found it odd that the entire hospital board of trustees was not aware this research was going on until about a week before the public was informed. Instead, he said only the members of the trustee’s executive committee were in-the-know.

“I still can’t figure out why the executive committee cut out the rest of the board of trustees. It’s not exactly clear. Only a few members of the executive committee were part of this process initially, and they were all asked to sign non-disclosure agreements,” Zapple explained.

Zapple said the secrecy of a discussion that could so dramatically impact the public concerned him. He shared his desire to be more transparent with the county manager and top hospital officials, and said he was rebuffed.

“They didn’t see it that way. And our county manager said we’re being open and this is part of the process we are following. This is guarded information, this is high-level, we need to get this intent to sell [resolution] so we can get some real information through a [Request for Proposals].”

Zapple said he was disturbed to see fellow officials act as if basic information about the viability of a sale wasn’t already available. He said it was clearly available and was the basis for the “informational updates” provided to commissioners in May and June.

“I always assumed this information brought forward by Navigant would be brought out to the public,” Zapple told WECT. “Not even a summary [was released]. But instead, there was an avoidance of admitting that information even existed. When they said, ‘We’re just exploring the question.’ I’m like, ‘Come on guys, a lot of that information is already out there.’”

A spokesperson for the hospital provided the following statement, which has been posted in its entirety, when reached for comment on Tuesday:

“We are, and have always been, sensitive to how the consideration of any potential change in the ownership or structure of New Hanover Regional Medical Center would create concern for our staff and the community. We didn’t want to introduce that uncertainty without first understanding whether there might be organizations willing to invest in improving care and services here.”

“Conducting that early due diligence is the responsible thing to do and we engaged Navigant, a third party consultant, to do it. As part of their process, they collected high-level information that is confidential to the organizations that submitted it.”

“At no time did anyone from NHRMC talk directly with those organizations about the research or a potential partnership. The research simply informed the decision to request a vote to begin a formal and transparent process of publicly issuing a request for proposals and collecting and sharing responses. This is a natural course of business and in keeping with state laws and statutes.”

“The NHRMC Board of Trustees was made aware of the research at least a month before the public announcement.”

Zapple joined County Commission Chair Jonathan Barfield in opposing Monday’s vote in favor of the intent to sell resolution, but the motion passed with Commissioners Woody White, Pat Kusek and Julia Boseman voting in favor of looking for potential buyers.

WECT has submitted a public records request to NHRMC for information on their dealings with and findings from Navigant, as well as another consulting firm, Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock, Inc. Zapple said the second firm was hired to “manage the messaging from the hospital side, [after] if was determined by the hospital administration they didn’t have the talent to roll that out on their own."

Copyright 2019 WECT. All rights reserved.