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UNC/Vidant Health conflict headed to Senate committee

Update: Meeting in an emergency session late Monday, the Pitt County Board of Commissioners approved a proposal to end the dispute between Vidant Health, the county and the UNC System.

Under the proposal the UNC Board of Governors would appoint four members to the hospital’s board rather than the nine it appointed under the original agreement. Pitt County would retain its 11 appointments (at least one a physician from Pitt County) and the Vidant board would itself appoint two members (both physicians from ECU nominated by a committee at the university). The dean of ECU’s medical school would also hold a seat on the board.

UNC rejected the proposal in a statement, insisting that the system in place since the 1970s agreement between the parties be restored.

“We continue to believe that the best path forward for Vidant, Pitt County and East Carolina University would be to honor the long-standing partnership that has served eastern North Carolina well for more than 40 years and to fully restore the governance structure all parties had agreed to in the affiliation agreement,” the UNC System statement read. “We welcome future dialogue with Vidant leadership and look forward to hearing their concerns, as well as resolving problems that have arisen in the relationship with Vidant and its support of the Brody School of Medicine.”

Members of the committee said they weren’t sure whether that discussion would go forward as the parties are now in mediation.

Tensions between UNC and the eight hospital system based in Greenville exploded last month after Vidant announced it was no longer acknowledging the UNC Board of Governors’s right to appointment members to the the board of Vidant Medical Center.

Under an agreement in place since the 1970s the UNC Board of Governors appoints nine members to the board, part of its serving as a teaching hospital for ECU’s Brody School of Medicine. The Pitt County Board of Commissioners, whose county once owned the hospital, appoints 11.

ECU and the UNC system sued to prevent losing those appointments, the court issued a temporary restraining order freezing the current relationship in place and the parties have now entered into mediation.

Last week the UNC system issued a statement on the struggle through UNC Spokesman Josh Ellis.

“We continue to believe that the best path forward for Vidant, Pitt County and East Carolina University would be to honor the long-standing partnership that has served eastern North Carolina well for more than 40 years and to fully restore the governance structure all parties had agreed to in the affiliation agreement,” the statement read. “We look forward to hearing Vidant’s concerns, as well as resolving problems that have arisen in the relationship between with Vidantand its support of the Brody School of Medicine.”

But Vidant leaders in Greenville say the conflict goes deeper. Last week Greenville TV news station WITN released confidential documents from a consulting firm hired by the UNC system that showed their research into taking over the system.

In response Vidant released a statement accusing the UNC system of a “behind the scenes” plan to take over Vidant.

“It is part of a coordinated effort by outside interests and Raleigh politicians to take dominant position in governance, deal terms, etc. in eastern North Carolina,” the statement said.

“Despite this and many false narratives, the affiliation agreement with the Brody School of Medicine has always been and continues to be in effect,” Vidant said in its statement. “In fact, Vidant continues to support the education of medical students, residents and other health care providers, including Pirate nurses. The significant financial support from Vidant to Brody continues.”

UNC responded with a statement denying they had any plan — secret or otherwise — to take over the system.

“Even if there were plans, secrecy would be impossible,” the system said in a statement. “A combination of UNC Health Care and Vidant Health would require the approval of multiple public entities and boards. It would also require a public bidding process under State law.”

“Like all hospital systems, the UNC Health Care System is keenly aware of the rapid consolidation occurring across the country,” the statement read. “All systems look frequently to consider potential partners. The leaked document was prepared by a consulting firm hired by the UNC Board of Governors to illustrate and educate them on what the consolidating health care market might look like in the future. It was not prepared to evaluate partners or to pursue new partners.”

UNC Health Care has had a number of conversations with Vidant CEO Mike Waldrum about working together better, the system said in the statement, but none about takeovers. The statement alleges that Waldrum has talked with the UNC system and members of the Board of Governors in the past about the possibility of merging with UNC Health Care, which until recently was headed by Bill Roper, now interim president of the UNC System. UNC Health Care did not pursue the idea, the statement said.

The Senate budget, passed last week, would cut $35 million in Medicaid funds from Vidant Medical Center, an outcome both Republican and Democratic Senators said they would like to prevent.

Waldrum told Greenville’s Daily Reflector newspaper he didn’t understand why the budget cuts were put in place as the two parties were trying to resolve their disagreement.

““We think they have some valid concerns but we want to make sure our concerns are heard and we are committed to working with them through the process,” Waldrum said. “That’s why the thing we don’t understand is these cuts were put in the budget at the same time the two legal teams were working to resolve the issues.”

“We had hoped that we made appropriate and best-governance changes (and) they would work with us,” he said said. “We did not anticipate people would take actions that would damage eastern North Carolina. We were surprised by that.”

Senate leader Phil Berger said Monday that “all potential options” are being considered to resolve the dispute.

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