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By Mark Tosczak

UNC Health Care will spend $4 million on improvements ranging from a new CT scanner to new hot water heaters and operating room lights at UNC Rockingham Health Care, formerly known as Morehead Memorial Hospital.

UNC bought the hospital at the beginning of this year after bidding on it as part of bankruptcy proceedings last fall.

Photo courtesy: UNC Health Care

In addition to capital improvements, UNC physicians are also starting to make their presence felt in Eden, where UNC Rockingham is located.

Piedmont Radiation Oncologists, which has staffed the radiation oncology unit at Smith McMichael since it opened in 1994, is exiting to allow a UNC cancer physician, Mohit Kasibhatla, to lead radiation oncology treatments full-time.

“I have to remind the employees and the community that we’re only nine weeks in,” said Dana Weston, the hospital’s president. “The excitement is so high.”

Rockingham County residents are also eager to see changes, says Eden’s mayor Neville Hall, who also sits on the board of the Morehead Memorial Hospital Foundation.

“It’s not done overnight,” Hall said of the changes UNC is starting to implement in Eden. “We just have to be patient.”

“Tremendous sense of relief”

UNC Rockingham is also recruiting another cancer physician and a new primary care physician, Weston said.

And, she said, the hospital is also about to start a formal strategic planning process. That will include surveying consumers and local physicians about what services are needed in Rockingham County and neighboring communities, including parts of southern Virginia.

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Michael Manning of Piedmont Radiation Oncologists says the transition comes at a good time for his practice. Last year, around the same time Morehead filed for bankruptcy, one of the partners at Piedmont Radiation Oncologists, Dr. Bob Murray, retired. The practice hasn’t hired a new doctor to replace Murray, in part because of the uncertainty over the fate of Morehead and its cancer center.

“We expected a restructuring, maybe a new health system,” Manning said. “There was a tremendous sense of relief among the entire physician community when UNC Health Care stepped in to partner with the hospital.”

At times, demand for radiation oncology at Smith McMichael has been high enough to warrant a full-time doctor, but not always. Piedmont Radiation Oncologists rotated different doctors through the clinic to cover radiation oncology services. Last year, 153 patients received radiation oncology treatments at the cancer center.

The linear accelerator, which provides the radiation used in treating cancer, as well as the building and other facilities are owned by the hospital and were purchased by UNC as part of its buyout of the Morehead assets.

More investment planned

The bankruptcy process was a roller coaster for Morehead and Eden.

On Jan. 1, Morehead Memorial Hospital in Eden, officially became UNC Rockingham Health Care. Pictured (L to R): hospital trustee Eugene Russell, Sen. Phil Berger (R-Eden), hospital president Dana Weston, Rockingham County Commissiner Kevin Berger, Eden mayor Neville Hall and UNC Health Care CEO Bill Roper. Photo courtesy: UNC Health Care

The hospital solicited bids which were then reviewed by its board of directors and subject to court approval. Initially, a little-known Florida company, Empower IHCC Inc., won the right to purchase the hospital’s assets, including various outpatient clinics. But questions were raised in court about the company’s ability to actually finance the purchase and its track record with hospital management.

In the end, UNC stepped in with a new bid that topped Empower’s. UNC’s offer was swiftly approved.

Besides capital investments and new doctors, Weston said one of the biggest tasks of these first few weeks has been getting all of the Morehead employees onto the UNC Health Care payroll. Among other things, she said, that means that for the first time in many years, employees will get an employer match contribution into their retirement plan. On its own, Morehead couldn’t afford to contribute to employee retirement accounts.

Weston, who has spent the last few years trying to keep the small hospital afloat, said her role has transformed since UNC acquired the hospital. “It’s a completely different job,” she said.

Replacing the facility’s 40-year-old water heaters, for example, is the kind of routine capital investment that the hospital hadn’t been able to afford for the last few years, as it ruthlessly prioritized investments related to patient safety and quality outcomes, Weston said.

Hall said that when the hospital purchase was first announced, some employees were worried about losing their jobs. But, he said, “I think, for the most part, those fears have been eased since most people have retained their current position.”

When UNC bought Morehead for $11.5 million, it committed to invest at least another $20 million in the hospital over the next three years. The $4 million planned so far is just the beginning.

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Mark Tosczak

Mark Tosczak has worked as a writer and communications professional for more than 20 years, including stints as a newspaper reporter and editor, think tank communications director, marketing agency vice...