It’s Time to Break It Down!
I’ve written a lot of posts, but I do not recall having ever written one that focused on the town that served as my adopted home during the last eight years of my primary and secondary education. Check; cross that off the list.
In short order, I will introduce you to the Town of Belhaven, NC and its feisty, non-traditional Mayor, Adam O’Neal. To set the stage, Belhaven is one of those poor communities that typically spring to mind when folks discuss the rural South. It is nestled in a small Eastern North Carolina County (Beaufort), and according to the 2010 Census, the population was 1,688. This is a net reduction from 1,968 enumerated in the 2000 Census.
The demographics and politics make for an interesting mix, on its face. The racial mix of the population is split 37% white, 60% black. Native Americans and Asians each comprise less than 1% of the population. Hispanics/Latinos, which may be white or black, account for 2.69% of the residents.
So what makes the demographic-political mix so interesting? The Mayor of this predominantly black town is not only white, but also Republican. But that alone is not what makes this story interesting. In the Age of Obama, we have become accustomed, if not desensitized to the strident nature of partisan politics, on both the local and national level. So much so, that when New Jersey Governor Chris Christy embraced President Obama, and spoke kindly of him when the President visited New Jersey to offer federal assistance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the vast majority of his GOP colleagues attacked him.
I can honestly say learning that the incumbent Mayor of Belhaven was white did not surprise me. That he took a position in opposition to closing rural hospitals in general, and that he opposed closing Belhaven’s hospital in particular, also didn’t move the dial. However, when I learned there was a Republican politician who was distinguishing himself by challenging the popular GOP position against Medicaid Expansion, and that this GOP pol and the Mayor of Belhaven were one and the same, well now you have my full and complete attention.
I visited Eastern North Carolina 3 out of 4 weekends this month. I was already aware, via home-based connections that Vidant Health planned to close Vidant Pungo Hospital. The scheduled closure was executed on July 1, 2014. The CliffNotes version of the story is Vidant is a Healthcare Conglomerate that operates hospitals and medical facilities in 29 Eastern North Carolina Counties, serving a population of 1.4 million North Carolinians. Vidant bought a number of rural NC medical facilities, including Pungo District Hospital (in 2011).
After two years, Vidant Health announced plans to close what had become Vidant Pungo Hospital because it was losing money. The Vidant administration attempted to negotiate with Belhaven officials to take over operation of hospital. Ultimately, Vidant Health concluded Belhaven was unable to assume responsibility for the facility, and closed it July 1st.
Mayor O’Neal is a passionate advocate for his community. In his version of the big picture, the bottom line is Vidant Health traded the people’s health for profit. To give a stronger, more targeted voice to his principal concerns, on July 14, 2014, he set out on a two-week walk to Washington, DC. In taking his cause to the highways, byways, and streets, he sought to elevate 3 key issues:
- Medicaid Expansion
- Endangered Rural Hospitals
- Vidant Pungo Hospital
In making his case, the Mayor argued before a crowd at a news conference in the nation’s Capital, at the end of his protest march, “The story of Belhaven is bigger than the trials of a single small town.”
In framing the specifics of the matter, he took to task both hospital officials and NC elected officials. He suggested that Vidant put profit above people’s health. He also criticized state officials for their refusal to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid. It is these additional funds that pay the healthcare bills of many of NC’s poor. Without these funds, many North Carolinians are being denied critical health care services.
UNC Chapel Hill researchers studied the economic impact of the 140 rural hospitals that closed in the 1990’s. They found that within a few years, the unemployment rate in those communities rose by 1.6% and that the per capita income fell by more than $700.
Beaufort County’s unemployment rate was 8% in May, compared to 6.4% for the state. Mayor O’Neal emphasized that the fight for the hospital could determine the future economic viability of a community surrounded by rivers and sounds. He noted, “Not only have they taken emergency room services away from our town, they’re also taking every industry we’ve got away – which is retirees moving into our area. They’re not going to come to move into an area without a hospital.”
Like a lot of high school graduates from the area, I left Belhaven shortly after crossing the stage and turning my tassel. That was 42 years ago. While I currently reside a few hundred miles away, in many ways it is light years. Still, I spent a number of my formative years in that community.
Most of the life lessons that frame my worldview were gleaned during the course of executing my varied household chores, or managing my paper route, or in the course of my summers spent priming and hanging tobacco, or in the too numerous to count church services that every PK (Preacher’s Kid to the uninitiated) is subjected to every Sunday…and many other days and nights.
So, even though I was not born there, in lots of ways, Belhaven will always be a part of me. As such, I dedicate this post to my Homies-in-the-Haven. And in closing, I offer a special thank-you; a shout out, if you will, to Mayor Adam O’Neal. For many across the country, he put Belhaven on the map over the course of these past two weeks. For me, he provided a poignant reminder that the community lives, and always will, in my heart. If you didn’t know, now you know. One Man’s Pilgrimage: Mayor O’Neal Goes To Washington!
I’m done; holla back!
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