Council misses with vote denying clinic grant


Sunday, February 3, 2019

City Council seems to be agreeing more often these days. And when they don't, debate over issues that divide members have been more civil. It's been a welcome change.

That was evident last week when council debated the issue of whether the city should agree to seek a $70,000 state Building Reuse grant at the request of Chesapeake Regional Healthcare. The health care system was seeking the grant to finance a portion of its costs to open a convenience care center with its wound treatment and sleep center facility at City Center West off Halstead Boulevard. Chesapeake plans to spend at least $874,000 on the project.

While council's respectful demeanor is appreciated, the final split vote, which required Mayor Bettie Parker to break the tie, was a civil but wrong-headed decision for local residents. Council returned a 5-4 vote against helping Chesapeake with the grant.

Members opposed to the grant generally felt that helping Chesapeake with its project would harm the interests of Sentara Albemarle Medical Center.

In his motion to deny the city's assistance to apply for the grant, Councilman Gabriel Adkins called Elizabeth City a “Sentara-based city.” And, when she was called on to break the 4-4 tie, Parker called herself a "Sentara person." Councilor Anita Hummer also voted to oppose the grant, citing Sentara's investment in the area. Councilor Darius Horton, who called the proposal "a smack in the face of Sentara," and Johnnie Walton, who admitted he had mixed feeling about the matter, went along with the opponents.

Those councilors and the mayor apparently have a personal preference for Sentara, and it's not hard to see why.

Five years after Pasquotank County agreed to lease the former Albemarle Hospital to the Virginia-based medical group, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center is a much improved hospital. The impact of the health firm's investment — about $50 million in upgrades to the hospital's electronic medical records and IT, additional, specialized care treatment facilities and its outreach to support several community philanthropic projects — all have been a welcomed benefit to the area.

Last month, Sentara Albemarle President Coleen Santa Ana reported on progress made and outlined future offerings such as development of the hospital’s new breast center, greater access to physical therapy and orthopedics, and an improved financial position. The medical center's balance sheet is nearing the break-even point —  a welcome change from major losses before Sentara took over.

Sentara has positively contributed to the local medical landscape. In addition, it also satisfies another important component of local care through its agreement to provide substantial indigent care — that is medical treatment for people too poor to pay all or part of their medical bills. That factor specifically, as several stated, apparently appeals to those councilors opposed to helping Chesapeake obtain the state grant.

Indigent care is a significant cost to absorb in a rural community like this one, although Chesapeake officials report their local facilities also provide indigent care as well.

In northeastern North Carolina, where low wealth and a sparse population have often resulted in a variety of unmet needs, it's understandable why the quality and availability of health care ranks so high among the public. Local leaders, however, must be cautious not to choose health care winners and losers, creating favored and unfavored entities to do business in the city, out of personal preference.

As Councilor Billy Caudle, favoring the city's grant assistance to Chesapeake, pointed out, the additional access to the type of care facility proposed meets a specific public need. There is currently only one other center in the city, independent of Sentara Albemarle and Chesapeake, and it is normally very busy.

Also voting in support of the grant were councilors Jeanie Young, Kem Spence and Rickey King, the latter a member of the city-county Economic Development Commission. King reminded council that in addition to medical care, the Chesapeake facility would adds jobs and bring in revenue. A requirement of the state grant includes a jobs mandate; Chesapeake plans to hire seven staff members. Also, to show fairness, Spence suggested that the city would support getting a grant for Sentara if it requested one.

Opponents of the grant, while wanting to be supportive and protective of Sentara's interests, appear to have rejected other avenues for expansion of medical care services and options that local residents actually want and need. Despite all that Sentara has achieved, some medical care needs still go unmet; more doctors, specialists and, yes, walk-in care clinics, would help fill that need. And don’t overlook emerging health care issues, from potential expansion of Medicaid to new technologies, that would create care challenges in the future. It may take more than one health group to meet those challenges in this area.

Judging from Sentara's demonstrated commitment and performance, we have no doubt Sentara Albemarle and its affiliate services will continue to be the leader in local medical care in this city and county. Chesapeake Regional and other medical providers, however, also can contribute to the general health of local residents.