08/19/09 — Duplin begins to look at leasing hospital

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Duplin begins to look at leasing hospital

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on August 19, 2009 1:46 PM

Duplin General Hospital could be under new management by October 2010 if the Duplin County Commissioners vote to proceed with a proposal to lease the facility to a larger system.

Hospital President Harvey Case spoke to the board earlier this month about leasing the hospital as a way to secure access to "deeper pockets" of funding.

Duplin General has lost millions of dollars in the past several years, and establishing a relationship with a large health care system could provide much-needed resources, Case said.

"We've done a lot of great things in terms of quality and safety in the past two years with the help of University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina through our management agreement," he said. "But we're facing an uncertain future as the health care industry in America is reformed and we take care of people who have no means to pay.

"We need the support of a health care system that is committed to the well-being of our county and one that will help us become financially viable."

The hospital is still under the management agreement it entered two years ago with the University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina, but leasing the hospital would be a different sort of arrangement.

"When you manage, you control operations but there's no investment in the hospital," said Case. "A lease gives you a lot more control."

UHS only oversees the functioning of the hospital, but does not purchase equipment or perform similar services at Duplin General, while an agency leasing the hospital would put money into developing it.

Under lease with a large health care system, the hospital would be "more integrated with a lease, would get dollars and resources from there," said Case.

If a new system leases Duplin General, the hospital employees will not be considered county employees.

"Typically they will work for the new system, they will be new system employees," Case said.

Duplin General lost about $1.2 million each year from 2006-08 and has lost $1.8 million so far in 2009, he said, but larger systems are more profitable than small, rural hospitals and have better access to more resources.

Duplin County owns the hospital and county government must conduct any lease agreement. The hospital board of directors will guide the process, which will be very public, officials said, but by state statute the ultimate decisions must be made by the commissioners.

"This is certainly up to the county, because once it leaves the hospital the county is in control," said Case.

If the commissioners vote to continue the process, the county will send requests for proposals to a minimum of five public hospital systems, including UHS. The process would take four to six months, but the hospital could be operating as part of a new system by Oct. 1, 2010, Case said.

That won't be happening, however, until the commissioners cast a final vote.

Commissioner Reginald Wells commented that leasing the hospital could be an "inevitable result" of the economic downturn.

The Duplin County Commissioners will vote on the issue at the Sept. 8 meeting.