By Robert Carpenter
The New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) is publicly owned by New Hanover County and managed by an independent board of trustees. From its first patients in 1967- seven prematurely born infants- until today, the hospital has been an institution that has provided services to area residents regardless of race, creed, national origin, or ability to pay. Today, the hospital contributes about $145 million annually to care for the poor and requires no local tax support for its operations.
This institution represents what can be accomplished when we place our healthcare system in public ownership and make patient care the highest priority for hospitals. In 2019, private hospitals and nursing homes, including non-profit institutions, spent over $100 million on lobbying and over $30 million on campaign contributions. Furthermore, even if a non-profit corporation purchases NHRMC, there is no guarantee that the tax-exempt status of the company would translate to equivalent benefits for our community. In fact, in most cases of private non-profit hospitals, the community benefits, especially for charity healthcare, do not exceed the value of their tax exemption.
What would change under private ownership? In addition to the aforementioned expenditures on campaign contributions and loss of potential tax revenue without a guaranteed benefit, there are the expenses required to pay executives. In 2016, the top five executives at NHRMC earned a combined $2.6 million. Currently, the top five executives at HCA Healthcare, one of the bidders for the sale of the hospital earned a combined $39.8 million. Likewise, the top five earners at Atrium Health, another bidder for the hospital sale, earned a combined $18.4 million. The cost of these salaries, and of other inflated administration payrolls is a cost that will be paid by the residents of the Wilmington area. We should demand that our healthcare fees fund improvements to the healthcare facility and workers’ wages and benefits.
Presently, our hospital is controlled by our local elected officials, who are accountable to the constituents of New Hanover County. If we surrender this democratic control to an outside organization, we lose our agency to make the hospital an institution that can, for instance, provide the services needed by the residents of our region, continue development of the Pender County medical center, or grow partnerships to attract talent and specialties to our area. The short term windfall acquired by the sale of the hospital will inevitably be recovered by the buyer, and revenue will continue to be transferred to the buyer as the hospital becomes a franchise of a large corporation. Wilmington will be reduced to a renter paying a landlord in a faraway city, begging for investments in improvements we have historically been self-funding. The sale of the hospital represents a transfer of power away from the residents of New Hanover County, away from the elected County Commissioners, and away from the healthcare workers; and for this reason we must oppose it.