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One week to go: New Hanover County Commission holds public hearing ahead of series of votes on deal with Novant Health

Updated: Sep. 28, 2020 at 10:54 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - As they prepare to take a final vote on a proposed deal with Novant Health for the purchase of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, members of the New Hanover County Commission heard from the public formally once more.

At a public hearing Monday night, the commission heard feedback from the public, as well as members of the Partnership Advisory Group (PAG).

PAG members were up first, making their case once more for the plan they sent to the commission after going through a request for proposals process.

Co Vice Chair Dr. Joseph Pino said after the long process, he remains proud of the proposed partnership by way of purchase, because of what he sees as an opportunity for the community.

“I think at the end, what we have here today is an opportunity of a lifetime. That brings forth the opportunity to transform our healthcare system much faster than we ever could independently.”

Representatives from Novant Health leadership attended and made comments as well, as did a handful of NHRMC employees.

David Long, the director of spiritual health, echoed Dr. Pino’s comments, saying the partnership between NHRMC, Novant and UNC Medical School will be transformative.

“These three health care systems are each so very strong, however, they and we would be so very, very strong together,” he said.

However, there were some who continued to push back against the proposed agreement — in particular taking issue with the new private, non-profit foundation that would be established to manage the roughly $1.25 billion that would be left over in sale proceeds after a couple escrow accounts are established.

Alex Hall, the attorney for advocacy group Save Our Hospital, which last week filed a suit over the proposed agreement but was denied a temporary restraining order, said he thinks he knows how the commission will vote Monday, so he came to implore them to re-think the set up of the new foundation.

“You have the power, with this foundation to set up how it is governed,” he said, “and you can tell the people of this county, [it’s] their money, let’s do it in secret, or let’s do it in the open. And that’s your choice.”

Hall and others are concerned about the lack of directive in the draft bylaws requiring the new Foundation board to abide by the state open meetings law, as well as concerns that the way the new board is being set up could mean decisions are influenced by Novant.

The North Carolina Local Government Commission has disagreed with the county’s interpretation of state law.

Also concerned about those items was State Sen. Harper Peterson, who said he believes the final decision shouldn’t be made by the commission alone, but rather through a vote by the public.

“This community owned hospital was established 53 years ago by a vote of the citizens of New Hanover County and therefore it is only right that they should vote on its future,” he said. "It is the people’s hospital and no one else’s.”

On Tuesday, the PAG will take up the issue once more in order to weigh in on the proposed purchase agreement, and on Thursday, Oct. 1 the NHRMC Board of Trustees will do the same.

Ultimately, the commission will take a final vote on Monday, Oct. 5 at their meeting that begins at 4 p.m.

Attorney General Josh Stein’s office still plans to review the proposed transaction, a point Peterson also brought up during his remarks, noting that county and hospital legal staff have disagreed that Stein’s office has oversight, but have nonetheless kept the office informed of proceedings.

You can watch the full public hearing here.

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