The 130-bed Wilkes Regional Medical Center was founded in 1952.
The 130-bed Wilkes Regional Medical Center was founded in 1952. Photo credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons

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By Thomas Goldsmith

Wake Forest Baptist Health is taking on a 30-year lease of Wilkes Regional Medical Center in North Wilkesboro, following negotiations among county commissioners, the town, the hospital operating corporation and the Winston-Salem based hospital system.

The parties signed a non-binding letter of intent toward a long-term lease of Wilkes Regional Medical Center during an August town board meeting.

The 130-bed Wilkes Regional Medical Center was founded in 1952. Photo credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons

The process is expected to last several months, but under the proposed lease, Wake Forest Baptist would invest $238 million to support the hospital, town and patients during the first lease term.

“We announced our intentions to move forward with Wake Forest Baptist back in April,” Debbie Ferguson, a North Wilkesboro town commissioner, said in statement. “The time spent during these more than three months on reaching this agreement reassures us we have the best partner to navigate Wilkes Regional Medical Center through the growing health care needs of the North Wilkesboro community.”

The projected deal continues a trend in which smaller, community-based hospitals in North Carolina affiliate with larger hospital systems as insurance against health care and compensation trends which can be perilous for independent hospitals in largely rural areas.

The agreement stipulates that Wake Forest Baptist will move Wilkes Regional Medical Center and Wilkes Physician Network, an affiliate, onto its electronic medical record system as soon as possible.

“The transition period we are entering is a key step in the evolution of our partnership with Wake Forest Baptist,” said Eric Cramer, board chairman of the operating corporation of Wilkes Regional Medical Center.

The transition should not disrupt the operations of the hospital, physicians network or the care or safety of patients, principals said. Carolinas HealthCare System, which has managed the hospital since 2007, will continue to support the hospital’s operation during the transition, said Cramer, describing Carolinas HealthCare System as “a great partner.”

The letter outlines several months of due diligence and information technology changeover, with Wake Forest Baptist supplying advanced IT tools.

“We see a great opportunity to grow clinical programs and continue effective recruitment and engagement of physicians that will ensure excellent care for Wilkes County citizens and benefit the Wilkes region,” Wake Forest Baptist CEO John D. McConnell said.

Wake Forest Baptist expects the deal to close on July 1, 2017.

In a May 2015 public notice, the North Wilkesboro Board of Commissioners sent out a request for proposals from companies interested in leasing the hospital. Parties notified included Carolinas HealthCare System, Duke LifePoint, Mission Health, Novant Health, RegionalCare Hospital Partners and Wake Forest.

The current management company, Carolinas HealthCare, did not submit a proposal.

[box style=”2″]This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina. [/box]

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...