On at least four formal occasions, members of the self-identified UHS Coalition have repeated their desire for the financially deficient Beaufort Regional Health System to affiliate with University Health Systems, over all other bidders, before the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, the entity charged with making the final decision.
Since the bid process began, there have been three public hearings on the matter: on Aug. 31, 2010, Oct. 27, 2010 and Feb. 9, 2011; and one delegated public comments section during the Jan. 10, 2011, regular commissioner meeting.
Still, at the third public hearing, held Wednesday evening, a member of the UHS Coalition who has spoken at each occasion, Kathy Vasquez, said "the public" was not sufficiently heard at some point during said process.
"The involvement and commentary by the public was so tightly controlled that the public felt left out," said Vasquez, on Feb. 9, words that were echoed by the cheers and applause of the roughly 150-member audience. "The public trusted you to do right. And only when the process failed did we rise to action."
It has been well documented that many within the UHS Coalition believe that the process failed back in July 2010, when Brenda Peacock replaced Sandy Easley on the hospital board and helped reverse its June 2010 vote to bring in a UHS management team at the beginning of the RFP process, on the grounds that doing so would create a conflict of interest.
One such admission of this perspective was made by a member of the UHS Coalition, Robert Belcher, at the Aug. 31, 2010, public hearing, when he suggested that the hospital board should have circumvented the law to get what he, and others like him, want.
"I wish that you had chosen to simply have gone into negotiations with Pitt behind closed doors and found a way for the two entities to work out an affiliation," said Belcher, on Aug. 31, 2010.
Ironically, the UHS Coalition has taken the position that it is they who have respected the law; and others, such as Hood Richardson, the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners' representative on the hospital board and BRHS negotiating team, who haven't followed the due process.
“We were told to let the process work; however, that process was greatly flawed: from the erroneous composition of the negotiating team, the excruciatingly drawn out negotiations, to the deadlocking of the team, to the premature hospital board vote, to the secrecy surrounding the withdrawal and reentry of CHS, to no public hearing after CHS reentered, to no public hearing by the commissioners… to the overall secrecy,” said Vasquez, at Wednesday’s hearing.
In response to Vasquez’s accusations of corruption: The BRHS negotiation team was composed in accordance with North Carolina General Statutes; and there is no legal time limit on negotiations. Furthermore, the fact that the negotiating team was split in its recommendations is also irrelevant. It is the BRHS hospital board, not the negotiating team, which took action. In CHS’s Jan. 11 letter retracting its winning bid, CHS explained its earlier withdrawal and reentry as being a private business decision, which was reversed “at the urging of members of the County Commission and citizens of the community.”
It seems Vasquez, and those who applauded her opinions on Wednesday night, are in some pretty deep denial about which faction violated the due process.
Vasquez’s complaint that "the public" was "left out" of the process was completely unfounded. In fact, the UHS Coalition so loudly and continuously broadcasted its uncompromising preference for UHS--both before the hospital board received bids on Sept. 4, 2010, and during the negotiating process—that UHS did not feel compelled to submit a strong offer.
Early on, the UHS Coalition was ready to circumvent the process, and nearly gift the hospital to UHS: ie. the aforementioned June 2010 attempt by the hospital board (under the chairmanship of UHS Coalition member Sandy Hardy) to hire UHS at the beginning of the RFP process, and a June 2010 full-page Washington Daily News ad, paid for by the Committee of 100, which advocated an affiliation with UHS.
At the Jan. 8 UHS rally, UHS Coalition member Tomp Litchfield, during his turn at the mic, encouraged his comrades to inundate the winning bidder, CHS, with undermining letters, to bully them into retracting their bid.
At Wednesday’s public hearing, speaker David Wheeler applauded the UHS Coalition for thus persuading the top bidder and recommended choice of the hospital board, Community Health Systems, as well as the other bidder, LHP Hospital Group, to withdrawal their bids; leaving UHS as the only remaining choice for affiliation.
As a result, UHS is currently poised to purchase BRHS for a one-time $30 million lease payment, and another $10 million payment in 30 years.
Anyone can call foul, and an emotional group of people who are too busy to fact check for themselves are anxious to listen; but unless Vasquez, like fellow UHS Coalition member, Robert Belcher, was still upset about the July 2010 un-hiring of the UHS management team, or the hospital board’s initial, legally deduced recommendation of CHS as the top bidder, it unclear what she meant Wednesday night when she said "the process failed."
Only two of the 11 speakers at Wednesday's public hearing were not speaking in support of the UHS Coalition agenda: Velma Hickman, of Blount's Creek; and John Murphy, of Washington.
Hickman disagreed with the UHS Coalition's assertion that the hospital will only be worth $10 million in 2041.
"The small, but loud minority group who sabotaged the competitive bidding process did not serve the interests--healthcare or otherwise--of our 45,000 citizens and should be ashamed of themselves," said Hickman. "We will make our grandchildren pay."
Murphy reiterated Hickman's assertion that the small, yet well organized, UHS Coalition had disrupted the competitive process.
"A small percentage of hospital employees attempted to pose as the majority voice of Beaufort County," said Murphy. "They monopolized public hearings, delivering well orchestrated testimony, disrupted meetings with sophomoric chanting, cheering during what were supposed to be serious business negotiations."
The audience of UHS Coalition members did, in fact, laugh and jeer during Hickman and Murphy's three-minute turns at the podium; a spectacle that can be witnessed via videos of Wednesday's public hearing, available at the Beaufort Observer Web site.
Beaufort County Commissioner Hood Richardson, in an interview Wednesday evening, raised issue with what he identified as the nonnative composition of the UHS Coalition.
"Of observing this audience, there's not 5 percent that are natives of Beaufort County. So, look at who's making your decisions for you," he said.
Hickman said, in an interview Wednesday evening, that though she was intimidated by the overwhelming presence of the UHS Coalition, it was her duty to speak on behalf of those who might have felt too demoralized to be present.
"When I found out that there was going to be this hearing, I knew that I had to speak. I also knew that I was probably going to be only one of two people there," said Hickman. "It does make you feel a little apprehensive, but when there's something that needs to be said, you do it even though you may be shaking."
Hickman was one of seven signed up to give comment on the BRHS merger at the Jan. 10 regular commissioner meeting. However, when she arrived, the Beaufort County Administrative Office building was overflowing with UHS Coalition members, and Hickman, at 78 years of age, was left to wait outside in the cold. By the time her name was called, Hickman had already gone.
"When I got there, the place was jam-packed, and I was not allowed to go in because of the fire code," said Hickman. "Only if someone came out, could I go in. I was standing outside. It was very cold. I tried to wait."
During the interview with Hickman, Beaufort County Commissioner Ed Booth approached and offered a show of support.
"I enjoyed your comments," said Booth. "I like the truth. I don't care where I hear it."