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Mayor walks again in push for rural hospital's reopening

Associated Press

A small-town mayor who's already walked more than 550 miles to bring attention to the closure of the town's hospital is putting more mileage on his sneakers in hopes of getting a certificate that would allow the facility to reopen.

Mayor Adam O'Neal left his coastal town of Belhaven on Sept. 8 and plans to finish the 130-mile walk to the state's Capitol on Wednesday, when he hopes to meet with Gov. Pat McCrory.

"If legislators can't fix this problem, I hope the governor will step up and be a leader of rural health in North Carolina and do what needs to be done to open our hospital up and stop people from needlessly dying," O'Neal said the day after the walk began when he was outside Washington, N.C.

Drivers could be heard blowing horns every few seconds as they drove past O'Neal. "You've got our prayers," one woman shouted.

Since Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven closed July 1, 2014, O'Neal has pushed officials — both elected and health — to reopen the facility, including walking twice to Washington, D.C.

Vidant took over Pungo District Hospital in 2011, paying off $1.6 million in existing debt. Hospital officials have said that operating losses of $5.7 million since that takeover and the need to replace the aging building were two of the main reasons for the closing. State officials' refusal to expand Medicaid also was a factor, but not the main reason for the closing, officials said.

In July, the U.S. Agriculture Department's Office of Rural Development approved a loan of almost $6 million to reopen the hospital, provided several conditions were met, including obtaining a certificate of need. The money would go to Pungo Medical Center, a nonprofit that the town established, said O'Neal, who has a non-paying position as chairman of the nonprofit.

State health officials wrote to O'Neal that the certificate isn't needed for an existing health service facility but is needed for a new one. Hospital advocates argue that the hospital is an existing facility, albeit one that's closed.

Although the governor hasn't received a request from O'Neal to meet with McCrory, he is willing to do so, spokesman Josh Ellis said.

Many states require certificates of need to prove that a hospital or other health-care facility is necessary. Supporters say they reduce duplication of services while critics say the certificates stifle a free market. The North Carolina Hospital Association would oppose any variance from the rules, a spokeswoman said. Same goes for Vidant, spokeswoman Chris Mackey said in an email.

Meanwhile, Mackey pointed out that Vidant Health broke ground in April on a new 12,000-square-foot multi-specialty health facility that will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Vidant's family medicine practices will be combined into one location, and the new facility will have helicopter access. The facility should open in June, she said.

The mayor, a Republican, also appealed to GOP senators for an exception from the certificate. Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said while senators support eliminating the certificates, they're unlikely to support a one-point carve-out to help Belhaven because that would set "a dangerous precedent."

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Associated Press reporter Gary D. Robertson contributed to this story.

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Online:

http://www.saveourhospital.org/

https://www.vidanthealth.com/belhaven

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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