BY CASH MICHAELS OF THE WILMINGTON JOURNAL
There seems to be little question in the minds of those who oppose the possible sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners that the cost of health care would go up, and the quality of health care, as a result, would go down.
NHRMC, the largest county owned hospital system in North Carolina, generates $1 billion annually in New Hanover County’s economy and contributes “…$145 million annually to the care for the poor,” according to the NHRMC.org website.
Among the many voices of concern expressing that beyond the New Hanover County NAACP, State Senator Harper Peterson and others, is clinical medical assistant, Islah Speller.
Ms. Speller, a native of Wilmington, who has worked locally in the healthcare field for over 30 years (14 of which were at NHRMC), told The Wilmington Journal shortly after the NHC Board of Commissioners approved a controversial resolution to solicit RFPs (Requests for Proposals) to purchase NHRMC, that African American and other poor people living in the seven county region that NHRMC serves, would be greatly affected if it were sold.
“I’m heartbroken about it, Ms. Speller,” an African-American, told The Journal by phone exclusively Saturday. “As a healthcare provider, I’ve always given my heart, my skill, my passion. If they privatize the hospital, the quality of care, love and dedication would be lost. We would become a number, and not a patient.”
Ms. Speller went on to remind The Journal that NHRMC belongs to the people.
Per the history of NHRMC, according to its online page at NHRMC.org., it was by 1867, after both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, that the federal government commissioned Scottish builder, James Walker, to construct a hospital in the county. Meanwhile, in 1881, the NC General Assembly authorized the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County to build a joint hospital called “City-County Hospital.” In 1888, a separate building was opened for Black patients.
During the 1898 race massacre, many injured Black men were treated at City-County Hospital, which soon closed to make way for James Walker Memorial Hospital.
In 1902, Walker Memorial Hospital opened with a “colored annex,” but “access to care was not equal,” primarily because it was opened just a few years after the 1898 Wilmington race massacre.
Black doctors were forced to open Community Hospital in 1921 for Black patients.
By 1947, Walker Memorial was considered outdated, and the county was asked for funds to update but refused to comply. The New Hanover County Board refused again in 1953. In 1957, four White physicians came together to open private Cape Fear Memorial Hospital.
The following year, voters were asked to fund the building of a new hospital. Black leaders opposed, however, not trusting White leaders to deliver an integrated hospital. In November, 1961, African-American voters came out and supported construction of a new hospital.
Less than six years later, New Hanover Memorial Hospital opened the same day outdated Walker Memorial closed. The Black hospital, Community Hospital, also closed after 43 years. Since then, NHMH evolved into NHRMC, merging with Cape Fear Memorial, and acquiring other local health service providers.
“We built that hospital,” Islah Speller insists, referring to New Hanover County voters. “We need to fight for our hospital because we built that hospital.”
So NHRMC today, according to the hospital’s own website, was born when New Hanover County’s Black voters approved construction of New Hanover Medical Hospital in 1961, with the promise that African-Americans would be given access to the same facilities and medical services as Whites.
Islah Speller says that African Americans have made an historic investment in NHRMC almost 60 years ago with a vote that brought vital medical services to all citizens and will certainly be affected if it is ultimately sold.
“How will those be served with no [health insurance],” she asked rhetorically. “Will all insurance be accepted? We fought for the right for all patients to be treated equally, regardless of their skin color or cultural background.”
Ms. Speller warns that, if NHRMC is turned into a private hospital, it can decide whether it wants to serve an indigent population that is covered by Medicare.
Speller insists that NHRMC is not the county commission board’s to sell. “It belongs to the people,” she insists. “The board was just …entrusted with it.”
Ms. Speller recommends that the community seek legal advice, as State Sen. Harper Peterson has by filing a complaint with the State Attorney General’s Office last week.
“It’s so unfair, and it’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Potential buyers for NHRMC will have 60 days to submit their RFP bids.