Eastern NC hospital to close after Medicaid expansion fails

CORRECTION — Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story mischaracterized Beth Atkins by writing that she said Belhaven residents will not have easy access to a trauma center until a new hospital is built. She had said residents can go to Vidant Health hospitals in Nags Head and Washington. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

The closing of a small hospital in eastern North Carolina has some hospital officials concerned about budget cuts and health care access.

Executives from the Greenville-based Vidant Health voted unanimously last week to close the system’s Belhaven Hospital branch, effective in March. The closure was made in light of Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision earlier this year to reject Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Beth Atkins, a Vidant Health spokeswoman, said in an email that McCrory’s rejection of Medicaid was not the only reason the 60-year-old hospital will close. She said out of the 25,000 residents the hospital serves, only six patients currently use the hospital’s inpatient services.

But she said if Medicaid expansion had passed, the hospital would have had the funding to remain open.

McCrory has said that budget constraints prevented him and state legislators from accepting Medicaid expansion.

Jennifer James, a UNC Health Care spokeswoman, said UNC Health Care system CEO Bill Roper was actively involved with health care leaders and McCrory’s team in analyzing the costs and accessibility of the expansion.

“We know the governor faced a difficult task in balancing the budget and deciding about Medicaid expansion,” James said.

Atkins said the Belhaven Hospital’s closing would not eliminate all services being provided to nearby residents — services such as physical therapy and 24-hour-a-day care would be taken care of by physician offices.

She said Belhaven residents can go to Vidant Health system hospitals in Nags Head and Washington while a new medical building is being completed on the property, which is expected to take 18 months.

N.C.’s Medicaid program currently provides benefits to more than one million state residents. If North Carolina had passed the Medicaid expansion, 587,000 of the state’s 720,000 uninsured adults would have been able to enroll in the program.

The national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities had released a report stating that the cost to insure the 174,000 eligible without Medicaid expansion will cost the state $2 billion between 2014 and 2022, while the cost to expand the program would have been $3.1 billion.

Jonathan Oberlander, a UNC public health professor, said the small difference in costs shows that McCrory’s decision to reject Medicaid was largely political.

Oberlander said it will hurt the health care industry to see an influx of uninsured patients.

But James said UNC Health Care is committed to preserving health care accessibility.

“It’s no secret that things are changing in health care,” she said.

“We are being asked to do more with less, and we will.”

state@dailytarheel.com

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