On July 14 I set out to walk 273 miles from the rural town of Belhaven, NC, to Washington, DC. The purpose of this pilgrimage is to save the only hospital in my community, to push for Medicaid expansion in the South, and to raise awareness about the rural health care crisis in America.
Belhaven is a tight-knit town set on a beautiful piece of land near where the Pungo River meets the Pamlico Sound in Eastern North Carolina. I serve as mayor of this community, but more importantly it’s the place where I was born and raised. The seafood industry and the nearby Intracoastal Waterway attracted settlers to these shores and the founders of our town had the foresight to build a hospital here shortly after World War II. For more than 65 years this hospital has seen us through economic booms and busts, floods, hurricanes, and, more recently, a string of violent tornadoes.
In 2011 a large hospital conglomerate, Vidant Health, bought our facility promising to strengthen medical care in our town. Barely two years later, Vidant announced that it would close our hospital for good. I found out about Vidant’s decision from a reporter. They didn’t even bother to notify us.
Vidant says that it had to shut our hospital because the hospital lost money. Meanwhile, Vidant has earned more than $100 million in profit in each of the last several years and holds more than $550 million in reserves. The truth is that Vidant profits mightily off the people in my community, but they would profit off us a little more if they shut down our hospital and forced us to go to other hospitals in the regional monopoly they control. Shutting down our hospital and forcing some of us to travel 80 or 90 miles for emergency care is part of a larger business plan to boost Vidant’s already substantial revenues.
Isn’t it obvious why the closing of our critical access hospital would concern me? As so many predicted, the result is unnecessary deaths. One of my neighbors died less than four days after our hospital was closed. A 48-year-old mother of three might have had a chance to live if emergency services were available within a reasonable distance. The longer our hospital stays closed, the more chance there is that something like this will happen again.
Why is the fate of Belhaven’s hospital a matter of national significance?
First, we are not alone. Corporate healthcare systems are acquiring community hospitals across the nation. Oftentimes, these conglomerates aren’t prepared to operate rural facilities. When these small hospitals start running deficits, large health systems close them down, leaving scores of towns stranded in “medical deserts.” Because these health care monopolies often have a stranglehold on large geographic regions, there is nothing rural communities can do to fight back.
In the past two years, four rural hospitals have closed in Georgia and one has closed in Virginia. According to the National Rural Health Association, more rural hospitals closed in the last year than the prior 15 years combined.
More will follow. We need the federal Department of Health & Human Services to take a more active role in maintaining these community hospitals. At a minimum, we need a federal law that prevents the closing of critical access hospitals unless HHS approves it.
Second, every state needs to close the insurance coverage gap by accepting federal Medicaid funds. The lack of coverage is especially serious in rural areas. Our health care providers need patients who can afford to pay in order to stay afloat, but too many people, especially in the South, fall into the Medicaid gap that state governments have created by refusing Medicaid. I am a conservative Republican and I understand some of the suspicions political leaders in my party have that Washington may not keep its promises. But those concerns do not trump the need to maintain health services in struggling communities. Rural citizens should not be the front-line soldiers in the South’s defiance of the new healthcare law, and they certainly shouldn’t have to die for it.
Although I am a Republican, I am working across partisan and racial lines to save our hospital and expand Medicaid. My brothers in this battle include Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and civil rights legend Bob Zellner, who has walked with me the entire way. Although we disagree on many issues, we are not the type of men who can stand by and watch as corporate bullies victimize American families.
On Monday, July 28, I arrived at the U.S. Capitol building with a message: It’s time to put people, not profit, at the center of our politics. It’s time to act to save rural health care. And it’s time to start working together like our lives depend on it. Because lives do depend on it.