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Most commissioners satisfied with Sentara's job at hospital

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The entrance to Sentara Albemarle Medical Center in Elizabeth City is shown in this Saturday, March 25, 2017, file photo. Most Pasquotank County commissioners are satisfied with the job Sentara Healthcare has done operating the hospital during the first five years of its lease.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Most Pasquotank commissioners say they are satisfied with the job Sentara Healthcare has done in the first five years of its lease of the former Albemare Hospital.

Only Commissioner Frankie Meads offered a few sharp criticisms.

“I don't think they're A-plus,” Meads said of Sentara.

Meads — an early supporter of awarding Sentara the lease for the hospital —  said he’s heard no complaints that Sentara has mismanaged care. However, he thinks Sentara Albemarle Medical Center sends too many patients to Sentara facilities in Norfolk area, where specialty care is more available. He described the hospital Sentara operates for the county in Elizabeth City as more of a “band-aid” or “first-aid” center.

Meads also said he felt Sentara's relations with employees could improve. He doesn't think employees are underpaid — Sentara has granted raises since 2014 — but many do seem to be overworked, he said.

Other commissioners generally praised Sentara.

Board Chairman Jeff Dixon said Sentara has met or sometimes exceeded its lease requirements. The lease Sentara signed with Pasquotank County requires it to make at least $40 million in capital investment in the hospital in the first five years, and Sentara has far exceeded that, he said.

In particular, Dixon called Sentara's upgrade of the hospital's information technology a “huge” improvement. Sentara spent about $18 million to implement a new electronic medical records system so that real-time patient data is easily accessible to both providers and patients themselves.

Dixon also said it's been hard for Sentara to recruit doctors to the area, but added that's difficult everywhere.

Board Vice Chairman Lloyd Griffin also expressed satisfaction with Sentara, and didn't criticize Sentara for referring some patients to other hospitals. In the run-up to the lease, commissioners wanted to see Albemarle Hospital become a “regional referral center,” rather than a “feeder” hospital to other Sentara facilities.

Griffin said some referrals are to be expected for a hospital of Sentara Albemarle’s size. Even Vidant Health, who managed the hospital before Sentara, referred people elsewhere, he said.

Griffin also said he believes referrals have become more common as health systems have grown specialty care. General surgeons used to perform many procedures that are now placed in specialists' hands, he said.

Commissioner Charles Jordan said people generally seem satisfied with Sentara Albemarle’s quality of care, but he said Sentara nonetheless needs to make sure people know the services it provides.

Commissioner Sean Lavin said Sentara has honored its lease, but “there's always room to improve.” He said he'd like to see more doctors recruited and services expanded further. In particular, because Pasquotank is working to draw retirees to the area, Sentara Albemarle needs to offer services to reduce elderly residents' trips to Virginia, he said.

Commissioner Barry Overman noted he's still new to the board, but said Sentara appears to be meeting its commitments to the county. He also said more people seem to be getting care at Sentara versus driving elsewhere.

He also said he has gotten care at Sentara's orthopedics center, and was very satisfied with it.

Asked about specialist recruitment, Overman said the community's size makes that more difficult.

In interviews, county and hospital officials have explained that certain specialists are in higher demand, and more expensive, than primary care doctors.

Mary Anne Keyes, chairwoman of the Albemarle Hospital Authority, also praised Sentara last week. It's been successful in a lot of areas and has improved the quality of care, she said. Like Dixon, she also praised Sentara for investing more than necessary in the hospital, and added she believes employee morale has improved since 2014.

Keyes also credited Sentara for being “picky” in the doctors it's recruited. She explained that, prior to Sentara, Albemarle Hospital would recruit physicians and then see them leave after a few years, when the hospital stopped subsidizing their practices. Hospitals sometimes support new physicians to give them time to build good volumes of patients.

Keyes said Sentara has worked to recruit providers who not only stay in the area — avoiding the costs and effort of constant new recruiting — but who become active in the community.

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