As county officials head toward a Sept. 3 vote regarding the potential sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center, some area health care officials and elected leaders have questions.
Jeff James, CEO of Wilmington Health, said Wednesday that he and other officials with his health care organization understand why the county is looking at a potential sale, but concerns remain, including costs and quality. Wilmington Health is an independent physician group whose doctors have privileges at the hospital.
“We are very concerned that depending on who the purchaser is, if there is a sale, that the cost of care will go up," James said. "We worry that if the cost of care doesn't go up, that the level of service will decline."
Wilmington Health supports the hospital leadership "as they go through this process," James said. "I would say if we have any concerns, our concern is always with the patient population of our community and what's going to happen to the delivery of health care here."
He said NHRMC is one of the highest-functioning hospitals in the state.
"It has an outstanding leadership team, and we would be concerned that any change could potentially have an adverse effect on the very progressive and innovative culture at the hospital," James said.
James asked whether a potential purchaser will have "the same commitment to the community that the current leadership does? I think that's something that the commissioners need to consider."
And what happens after a sale takes place?
“I understand that the process is going to be transparent, but will we be able to understand the impact on the community after the fact?" James asked. "How will we be able to judge the success of this transition? There's so many unanswered questions, and it’s too early, but we are optimistic that the county will make a decision in the best interests of the community.”
Stephen DeBiasi, CEO of EmergeOrtho, said he, too, has some concerns and questions.
"EmergeOrtho maintains strong, collaborative working relationships with the hospital. I have also served on nonprofit boards that are well-supported by NHRMC in terms of financial support, volunteer efforts and partnering on delivery of services," he said. "I feel like they are very well ingrained into the community in terms of the services they provide. I think the possibility of a new hospital owner -- that new owner may or may not value those community partnerships."
DeBiasi questioned how a potential buyer might view independent practices.
"EmergeOrtho and other practices in town are physician owned and managed. That’s an important overall component of the health care landscape in the community – providing options to patients who choose to seek care in an independent practice. An investor-owned hospital might change that collaborative culture and investment in the community."
Elaborating on that last point, DeBiasi said, "A new hospital system owner may attempt to control the physician community by employing all physicians, both primary care and specialists. We believe there is a continuing role for independent, physician-owned practices to remain viable."
He also mentioned the hospital's current culture.
“I think the hospital has a very healthy and strong culture. A new hospital owner may have different priorities, and that culture may change over time," DeBiasi said. "As for the idea of exploring selling the hospital, it's a wise decision for them to consider various alternatives. There’s a very bright, forward-thinking management team leading New Hanover Regional. I’m not surprised to see them gathering community input and processing the idea very deliberately and methodically.”
In his opinion, DeBiasi said, there’s no need to panic.
"We’ve been through several mergers and acquisitions over the years, and each time the day following a merger or acquisition, we have had no fewer patients to see," he said.
Ilene Evans, director of marketing and community relations for Dosher Memorial Hospital in the Brunswick County town of Southport, said in an email Wednesday, "All hospitals are seeking partnerships or opportunities, whether collaboration or joining different systems. Dosher has had a long and successful relationship with NHRMC and we look forward to that continuing."
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo on Wednesday shared his preference for the type of buyer he'd like to see for the hospital, if county and hospital officials move forward with a potential sale.
"I'd rather a nonprofit as opposed to a for-profit if that's the decision that is made. Then more importantly, what does it do for our health care system? There's a lot of people that really like and love what this hospital has done for the community since . It's good for our community; people have made the decision to come here because of our health care system. ... That's probably one of the most important things to me is that the quality of the health care system, whether New Hanover stays a county hospital or if it is sold to a private group, continues to be good and better in the future."
Saffo said a potential buyer would need to answer those questions.
"How are they going to improve it? What is it going to look like in the future? I think those are the kinds of things that are going to need to be shared with the general public so they can really make their own qualified opinions on this thing, their own idea of what they think is best for the community and for themselves."
In Pender County, Pender Memorial Hospital is operated by NHRMC through a lease arrangement but owned by the county.
George Brown, chairman of the Pender County Board of Commissioners, said Wednesday that NHRMC "has always been committed to us, and we've been committed to New Hanover. I'm sure whatever agreements they make in the future, we'll have some kind of part in that, hopefully. It's been a good arrangement with New Hanover. We've been pleased, and we hope to continue that arrangement."
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