By Liora Engel-Smith

For about the last 9 months, New Hanover Regional Medical Center officials have been speaking about the need for partnership in order for the health system to survive. The greater Wilmington area is rapidly growing, they said, and the county’s hospital system cannot accommodate that growth without the backing of a larger partner.

The public, it seems, has remained largely opposed to change. On Monday night, the two camps, one consisting of county officials and hospital staff and the other mostly local residents, came into sharp focus at the latest in a series of hearings on proposals to lease, sell or otherwise partner with larger health care systems.

Members of the Partnership Advisory Group, a 21-person body the county convened to study the options, have already signaled that they favor collaboration with another health care system. The final decision for the hospital’s future rests with the county board of commissioners, but the advisors will make recommendations for the 647-bed hospital and several clinics, the largest county-owned system in North Carolina.

“We can choose to do nothing, but that’s a choice too,” said Robert Campbell, a pastor and a member of the partnership advisory group, who was among the first to speak at Monday night’s hearing. “I think it is time we find a partner and we prepare to go forward with our community to greater health.”

An African American man talks to the microphone
Partnership Advisory Group member Robert Campbell speaks at Monday night’s hearing, which was also live streamed. Photo credit: New Hanover County

The group narrowed almost 30 proposals down to six from Atrium Health, Duke Health, HCS HealthCare, HealthSpan/Bon Secours Mercy Health, Novant Health and UNC Health. Three of the contenders — Duke, Novant and Atrium — were invited to present proposals in a series of hearings earlier this month, though the Partnership Advisory Group said that all six contenders, even those who did not present, are still in the running.

For the six finalists, New Hanover Regional represents an expansion opportunity in an area with many Medicare-insured seniors and fewer Medicaid enrollees, a relatively lucrative payer mix that offers an opportunity for positive margins. New Hanover Regional was firmly in the black before it briefly suspended elective surgeries in light of the coronavirus pandemic, its financial statements show. The hospital reported a smaller-than-expected but still positive margin from operations for the period that ended March 31 of this year, however.

Members of the public who spoke on Monday night largely opposed a partnership of any kind, including a lease agreement with Charlotte-based Atrium Health.

“This is our hospital,” said Wilmington resident Neal Shulman. “Anything Atrium can do, we can do for ourselves.”

Some of the residents who advocate for retaining local control over the hospital have formed a group called Save Our Hospital. Several members of the group spoke on Monday night.

Alex Hall, a member of the group and an attorney, called the proposals “a big mistake” and urged officials to wait until the coronavirus pandemic passes to make a decision.

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Physicians and other professionals working at the hospital largely favored entering a lease agreement with Atrium Health, which already manages the hospital’s physicians’ group.

Timothy Chase, an OB/GYN surgeon who works at the hospital and is part of the practice group, said that partnership with Atrium has brought resources and initiatives to New Hanover Regional that a private group wouldn’t be able to offer. Atrium’s bid offers maximum local control, he added, and is therefore the best option.

Roc McCarthy, chairman of robotic surgeries at the hospital, also supported partnership with Atrium as the best option for the community over the long term.

Resident Anne Patterson, a former medical administrator at New Hanover Regional and one of the few residents who spoke in favor of partnership, said the search for a backer is “inevitable” and “necessary.”

Without partnership, she said, “New Hanover cannot continue to provide the needed level of health care services to the community, the right ones in the right amount and for the right people.”

The Partnership Advisory Group is expected to deliver its recommendations to the hospital’s board of trustees and the county commissioners in the coming days.

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Liora Engel-Smith joined NC Health News in July 2019 and covers policies, programs and issues that affect rural areas. She has previously worked for the The Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire and the Muscatine...