Public cites physician quality at hearing on possible sale of hospital

fr hrmcMaintaining high-quality doctors in Haywood County emerged as a common theme in a public hearing last week on the future of MedWest-Haywood.


Hospital leaders are contemplating a sale, merger or lease of the Haywood County hospital to a larger system. Who owns the hospital is ultimately less important than the caliber of Haywood County’s medical community, according to several residents and civic leaders who spoke up at a public hearing last week held at the Haywood Regional Fitness Center.

Haywood County has a reputation for having top-notch doctors representing an impressive number of specialties.

That was a deciding factor for Lee Hiatt and his wife when retiring here.

“We were fortunate to find doctors who were not only qualified to take care of our needs but in our opinion as good as the doctors we had in Tampa,” Hiatt said. “We decided this was the place we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.”

Luise Johnson, a retiree from Raleigh, said she has been highly impressed by the quality of physicians and medical care she found since moving here six years ago. She doesn’t want that to change — or the community feeling for that matter.

“I love the idea that when I am treated it is someone I see in the grocery store, at the library, walking on the track,” said Johnson, who popped into the hearing while working out at the fitness center. “They care about me as an individual and a member of our community. I don’t mind who takes us over but I want the people who work here to be people who live here if at all possible.”

She wasn’t the only speaker who wanted to keep the best of both worlds — excellent physicians plus the ambiance of a community hospital.

“The personality of hospitals like this is different than the personality of larger hospitals. Smaller community hospitals are a lot more hands-on and personable because we are taking care of our friends and neighbors,” agreed Steve McNeil, a board member on the Haywood Chamber of Commerce.

Speakers pleaded with hospital officials and board members to do what it takes to make sure Haywood remains a desirable place where good doctors want to practice.

Tom Ezell cautioned that going hat in hand asking to be rescued by a bigger hospital company could go poorly.

“There may be a diminution in services. There may be a disaffection of medical doctors,” Ezell said. “You are a grossly underfunded and under capitalized institution. If you put yourself up for lease or sale or infusion of capital — whatever you want to call it — the underdog always ends up the under dog.”

Hospital officials have indicated all options are on the table, including a sale of the hospital, citing the challenging health care landscape and precarious financial footing faced by small, community hospitals everywhere.

Business leaders in the community also spoke during the meeting, imploring the hospital board to remember the important economic role a strong, quality hospital plays.

“With good local health care, businesses will locate here, people will move here, jobs will be created and the overall health and quality of the community will continue to improve,” said Laura Leatherwood, the vice president of student and workforce development at Haywood Community College and chair of the Haywood hospital foundation.


What next

Three boards would ultimately have to concur on a sale of the hospital.

•First, there’s MedWest, the partnership between the hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties that was forged three years ago.

•Then there’s the local governing board of Haywood Regional Medical Center, which has some semblance of autonomy despite its collaboration under MedWest.

•But veto power — up or down — ultimately rests with the Haywood County commissioners. Haywood Regional Medical Center is a publicly-governed hospital, established by the county more than 80 years ago.

Somewhere in there, Carolinas HealthCare System would have to agree to release MedWest from its long-term management contract. The trio of MedWest hospitals pays Carolinas, a network of 32 hospitals, to manage them, providing operational oversight, consulting services and expertise.

A couple of speakers spoke poorly of Carolinas and accused them of making things worse, not better, since they took the helm.

Hospital officials are not saying how many suitors they may have, who those suitors are or what the offers look like, citing confidential and sensitive business negotiations. With such limited information to go by, however, comments at the hearing were general and hypothetical.

Before signing on the dotted line, however, the hospital will have to eventually share more details with the public. As a publicly-controlled hospital, MedWest-Haywood will be obligated under state statute to disclose the top three proposals it received. After that, a second public hearing will be held, allowing for far more substantive input.

The elephant in the room during the hearing was whether Mission Hospital in Asheville is among the contenders. Mission tried to partner with Haywood four years ago, but Haywood’s medical community feared it would be overshadowed by Mission and hospital leaders heeded their wishes and declined. That’s still a concern for some.

“We don’t want to be consumed by anybody. We want a friendly partnership,” said LaNae McCracken, a retired nurse who warned against an alliance with Mission.

But as Haywood faces ever-increasing competition from Mission, it may make more sense to join Mission’s growing network of hospitals in Western North Carolina.

“I would implore you to keep an open mind and consider all the options, including even Mission,” Jerry Case told the hospital board. “I have nothing against Mission. It offers what appears to be a very good business operation. We could stand that here.”

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