Rev. William Barber of the N.C. NAACP and Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal speak Monday at the U.S. Capitol

Rev. William Barber of the N.C. NAACP and Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal speak Monday at the U.S. Capitol

Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal completed a walk from his small Eastern North Carolina town to the nation’s capital today, calling on national leaders to help rural communities with sparse healthcare options.

The 283-mile walk – the second year the Republican mayor has done it –– was to bring attention to the pressures faced by the nation’s 283 rural hospitals, especially those in states like North Carolina that opted not to expand Medicaid coverage.

O’Neal reached the steps of the U.S. Capitol Monday, and was joined at a rally with other advocates and allies, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, Belhaven Town Council member Julian Goff and the Rev. William Barber, head of the N.C. NAACP.

Belhaven, located in Beaufort County near the Pamlico Sound, lost its local hospital in 2014, when the hosptial’s owners opted to shut down the small healthcare facility because it couldn’t afford to stay open after North Carolina lawmakers chose to not expand Medicaid coverage in the state.

Residents now have to travel to Greenville for emergency care, a trip that can take over an hour.



IMG_0831Last year Mayor Adam O’Neal from the tiny, scenic town of Belhaven, NC, made national headlines as he walked nearly 300 miles from Beaufort County to Washington, DC, to protest the closing of his rural hospital and to urge states to accept Medicaid expansion.

On Monday, June 1, O’Neal left Belhaven to replicate last year’s feat. And this year he is taking along advocates from around the country. As marchers filed out of town yesterday to start the arduous journey they wore shirts advertising their home states. A team of advocates travelled from Texas, some came from West Virginia and Alabama, a rural hospital CEO from Kentucky joined the walk, as did a woman from Seattle, Washington.

The message of the marchers is clear: we must save rural health care.

A key part of that agenda includes expanding Medicaid, as an Episcopal priest from Belhaven reminded the audience during a prayer before the send off. Rev. William Barber from the NC NAACP noted that Jesus made health care a central part of his ministry.

You can follow the march at this website. You can also tweet with the hashtag #savethe283. That refers to a national estimate that 283 rural hospitals are at risk of closing this year.

You can also join the final rally as marchers reach Washington, DC, and gather at the Capitol on June 15 at 10am.

And, finally, you can ask legislators and the Governor in North Carolina to accept new federal Medicaid funds to expand insurance coverage to 500,000 more people in our state.


Rural hospital closuresWalking not only has individual health benefits, but this exercise can impact the health of an entire community. For the second straight year, Mayor Adam O’Neal of Belhaven is walking to save lives. While Belhaven is home to approximately 1600 people, Vidant Pungo Hospital provided critical care to people throughout Beaufort County and other rural eastern NC counties. Without the hospital, people face additional barriers to accessing care such as taking time off work to travel close to 60 miles round-trip to see a medical provider.

Beaufort County residents are not the only people in rural communities that have difficulty accessing care as 48 rural counties in NC have shortages in primary care. The closings of rural hospitals is a national issue – The Sheps Center at UNC notes that since January 2010, 50 rural hospitals have closed and nearly 300 more rural hospitals around the country are in danger of closing in 2015.

This year’s walk to DC is even more critical as our state faces many decisions that impact rural health –one of which is whether to repeal NC’s “Certificate of Need/ CON” law to allow for a “free market” and to “reduce costs” associated with accessing health care. However, research has shown that residents in rural communities have fewer resources to pay for health care, so it is unlikely that in a “free market” the need for health care services would go to rural counties where residents are more likely to be uninsured. Thus, there is more likely a duplication of services in urban counties. Further, there is research suggesting that states with CON laws report less hospital inefficiency and can even help reduce the length of stay in emergency departments. This new legislation will create more barriers to accessing quality health care in rural communities.

A second hot topic regarding health care is Medicaid expansion. There are many states that have expanded Medicaid either as outlined in the ACA or that have tailored expansion to meet their state’s needs through waivers. Even though states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Arkansas are seeing health and financial benefits, Gov. McCrory has delayed taking action on this issue until a decision has been made on King v. Burwell by the Supreme Court. The longer lawmakers take on extending health care to 500,000 North Carolinians, the more a financial and health hit our state takes. This is especially true for the rural counties in NC. In Beaufort County, over 1500 individuals would gain access to health care if Medicaid is expanded. However, with the hospital in Belhaven closed, where will the residents go to establish a medical home? Will hardworking residents in our rural counties seek primary and preventative care if there are too many barriers to accessing coordinated care or will they wait for more costly emergency care? Just like repealing or tweaking NC’s CON law, refusing to expand Medicaid affects hospital closures and thus increases health disparities.

If you can, please join Mayor O’Neal and walk for the health of Belhaven and all residents in rural communities whose health is negatively impacted by hospital closures. If you are unable to walk, call our Governor to push for Medicaid expansion and keeping our CON law.


Veteran Washington Post columnist Dana Millbank gets things just about right in this new essay about the stubborn refusal of the state’s conservative political leaders to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Millbank’s column was inspired by Belhaven mayor Adam O’Neal’s march to Washington that was designed to highlight the plight of his small town that lost its hospital thanks the state’s Medicaid decision:

O’Neal arrived on Capitol Hill carrying his hiking pole and wearing trail shoes, shorts and a “Save our Hospital” T-shirt. He was accompanied by about 250 supporters, most affiliated with labor unions, and by civil rights leaders. The hospital closure disproportionately affects African Americans. But Gibbs is white, and so is Crystal Price, who, with her young son, joined the mayor on the stage.

Price, 27 and an employee at Wendy’s, has no health coverage and spoke tearfully about her cervical cancer. “They don’t want to expand Medicaid, so families like mine .?.?. have to decide if we’re going to pay for our children’s health care or our own,” she said. “How many have to bury their loved ones, and how many children like my own will have to grow up without a parent because you want more money in your pockets?”

For O’Neal, any ideological doubts about Obamacare are dwarfed by the disgrace of a young working mother unable to get cancer treatment.

“I mean, that’s wrong,” he said. “Conservatives — everybody — should think that’s wrong.”

Read Millbank’s entire column by clicking here.


The mayor of a small coastal town with a recently-shuttered rural hospital began a nearly 300 mile walk to Washington, D.C. to call attention to his community’s lack of emergency medical care.

Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal  (Photo by Adam Linker)

Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal
(Photo by Adam Linker)

Adam O’Neal, the Republican mayor of Belhaven on North Carolina’s Inner Banks, began his walk after a brokered plan with Vidant Health to keep the Pungo District Hospital open fell apart last month. He’s expected to arrive in Washington in two weeks.

The nearest hospital and emergency care to the Beaufort County town is now in Greenville, nearly 50 miles and an hour’s drive away from Belhaven.

O’Neal has partnered with the N.C. NAACP to call for both Medicaid expansion and for the Belhaven hospital to stay open.

Vidant Health officials, when it initially announced its plan to close the hospital, said the N.C. legislature’s decision to not expand Medicaid meant the hospital wouldn’t be able to afford to stay open with a large segment of uninsured residents.

The Carolina Mercury posted this article today about O’Neal’s march, and included a letter from the mayor about the reasons behind the march.

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