Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal is walking a path he has walked before.
The route is different, he has different company, but the goal remains the same — to reopen the hospital in his town and save lives.
O’Neal and company are walking the 130 miles from Belhaven to Raleigh to speak with leaders in the legislature and the governor to get the last roadblock to re-opening the Belhaven Hospital out of the way: a reading of state Certificate of Need (CON) law that precludes the existing hospital from an exemption to the certificate process because it is no longer operating, since Vidant Health shut it down last year.
The state’s Certificate of Need (CON) law prohibits health care providers from acquiring, replacing, or adding to their facilities and equipment, except in certain circumstances, without the prior approval of the NC Department of Health and Human Services.
O’Neal believes Vidant acquired the Belhaven Hospital with the intention of closing it, forcing people to go to its facilities in Washington and Greenville.
“They pushed paying patients to their other facilities and kept the non-paying ones in Belhaven and then said they had to close it down,” he said. “We have people who are dying because of this corrupt, greedy health care conglomerate.”
He has walked to Washington D.C. before, twice, to gain attention for causes to aid his town, where he has served as mayor for the last 10 years.
The walk takes him away from his two daughters and two sons, his business and from his town, but he says it is that important.
“It’s painful and dangerous, but the purpose of the walk is to draw attention to a cause so important that it’s worth it,” he said. “Our slogan is ‘Whatever it Takes’ and the reason it is our slogan is because people are dying.”
O’Neal says that people have bled out or died of heart attacks, and also people aren’t getting preventative care because of the distance to the nearest hospital, a 30-minute drive to Washington from Belhaven.
Moreover, communities further out from Belhaven to the coast relied on the Belhaven hospital.
This is part of what got Hood Richardson, county commissioner for Beaufort County, to come out and walk with O’Neal, even though he is approaching 80.
And it seems to be working.
Just today, in addition to Gov. Pat McCrory agreeing to meet with O’Neal and Richardson, both House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) agreed to meet with them.
“Before they wouldn’t take my call; now they are agreeing to meet,” O’Neal said.
He has seen the proof that such walks work before. On his first walk to D.C., the town got a USDA loan; the second time legislation was passed for rural hospitals.
O’Neal and Richardson have been walking about 15 miles a day and their walk will culminate on Wednesday in a press conference at 3 p.m. on the lawn behind the State Legislative Building.
At the conference, O’Neal will ask McCrory to administratively clarify a section of CON law that could exempt Belhaven from law’s requirements, allowing the town, under an established non-profit, to re-open the hospital as Pungo Medical Center.
“We have already contracted with a management company who is under agreement to run the hospital,” he said.
The only thing standing in the way is the exception, or if it is not granted, then a team of hospital lobbyists looking to maintain a monopoly on health care under the CON system, O’Neal says.
“Certificate of Need law is nothing more than a way for hospitals to keep monopolies,” he said.
State law says that a new facility shall be exempt from CON if the new facility is acquiring “an existing health service facility.”
O’Neal says the closed hospital falls under this provision, but state health administrators so far have disagreed.
Supporting O’Neal is his mother Pam, who drives a Chrysler van along with O’Neal and Richardson, bringing them snacks and water and picking them up for breaks for food and sleep.
“If somebody walks up to your front door you tend to pay attention to what they want,” she said.