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Walking to D.C. to Save Belhaven Hospital


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What seemed to be a promising agreement between Vidant Health Systems, the NAACP and the town of Belhaven to keep Vidant Pungo hospital open has failed. Efforts are now underway to re-open the hospital in Belhaven.

By Hyun Namkoong

Adam O’Neal is a man on a mission. The Republican mayor of Belhaven walked for almost 20 miles in the pouring rain yesterday from Plymouth to Merry Hill to get to Washington, D.C., where he hopes to talk to lawmakers about the June 1 closure of the Vidant Pungo hospital.

If everything goes as planned, his 14-day, 273-mile trek on foot will put him in the nation’s capital on July 28.

What had been championed as a “historic agreement” between the NAACP and Vidant Health System to transfer ownership of the hospital from Vidant to a community-based board has fallen through, and the NAACP has re-filed a Title VI complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Both phone and email inquiries to several Vidant representatives were unanswered Tuesday evening.

The NAACP asserts in the re-filed Title VI complaint that the closure of the hospital would affect “poor African American and Latino residents of Beaufort and Hyde counties.”

Portia Gibbs' family maintains she died waiting in an ambulance because the closest hospital, Pungo Regional, has been shuttered.

Portia Gibbs’ family maintains she died waiting in an ambulance because the closest hospital, Vidant Pungo, has been shuttered. Portrait screenshot from YouTube video

Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

During a press call on the second day of O’Neal’s walk to D.C., he and Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. chapter of the NAACP, said that people will die as a result of the hospital’s closure. They asserted that 48-year-old Portia Gibbs was the first person to die from delayed care since the hospital’s doors shut.

“A lady spent an hour in the back of a paramedic’s ambulance in Swan Quarter, North Carolina instead of being transferred to Belhaven,” O’Neal said. He said it would have taken 25 to 30 minutes to get the woman to Belhaven.

According to O’Neal and Gibbs’ family’s statements on a YouTube video, she died waiting for a helicopter to airlift her to Norfolk, Virginia.

With the closure of the hospital in Belhaven, the nearest emergency room to Gibbs’ home in Hyde County is 75 miles away. There is no hospital in Hyde County.

Barber cited delays in both delivering information and the $1 million grant from Vidant to facilitate the transition process, as well as Pantego Creek LLC’s unexpected decision to not cooperate with the transfer of ownership, as key reasons for re-filing the Title VI complaint on June 24.

Pantego Creek LLC is the organization created in 2011 that entered into an agreement with Vidant to assume control of the hospital. The LLC informed the community-based board on June 16, two weeks before the date of the mutually agreed upon transfer of ownership, that it would not transfer control of the hospital to the board.

Barber said that he and O’Neal have signed and sent letters to state leadership including Gov. Pat McCrory and Speaker of the House Thom Tillis asking for help, but have yet to receive a reply.

O’Neal said that he supports Medicaid expansion and that it would’ve helped the hospital and the residents of Belhaven.

“We are serious about this issue,” Barber said. “We are asking for the federal government to use its muscle and stop [Vidant] from doing what will cause irreparable damage onto this community.”

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