Closure of rural hospital ripples across Hyde County waters
Posted October 7, 2014
Swanquarter, N.C. — Hyde County has fewer than 6,000 residents scattered across an area bigger than Rhode Island. Many of the locals like the wide-open spaces of the county's sprawling marshes and bays where fishing is a way of life.
But this summer, the remote county on the North Carolina coast became more cut off when a nearby hospital closed.
Greenville-based Vidant Health said it couldn't afford to keep Vidant Pungo Hospital open in a poor region where many residents lack insurance coverage. Several attempts to have the town of Belhaven take over the hospital failed, and the facility closed its doors on July 1.
Now, the nearest critical-care hospital for the 23,000 residents of Hyde and eastern Beaufort counties is more than 80 miles away. A woman who suffered a heart attack died in early July while waiting for a helicopter to airlift her to a hospital for care.
"I'm a heart patient myself," said Pat Spencer, who runs the lone gas station in Swan Quarter, the unincorporated seat of Hyde County. "As far as me having to go somewhere for skilled care, I've got to drive an hour and 30 minutes."
Spencer blames state lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory, who refused to expand Medicaid as allowed under the Affordable Care Act to provide health coverage to more low-income people. McCrory and legislative leaders said North Carolina's Medicaid system first needed to be reformed to bring costs under control.
"I don't want to see anyone starve to death," Spencer said. "I'm at an age where I'm going to need more health care, so yeah, I think he should have" expanded Medicaid.
Melvin Blount, a Hyde County teacher who was born in Pungo Hospital, said he thinks the facility could have remained open if Medicaid had been expanded, providing many area residents with the insurance coverage needed to pay for health care.
"To me, health care here is going down," Blount said.
"You got people at the hospital, they ain't got got insurance. They just can't do it," said Maurice Weston, who sorts crabs on the Swan Quarter waterfront.
Weston said he likely earns too much to qualify for Medicaid. Yet, he doesn't make enough to qualify for federal subsidies for insurance purchased through the online exchanges under the Affordable Care Act, what some people call "Obamacare." Expanding Medicaid was supposed to cover people in that gap.
"I don't have no insurance," he said. "I applied for that Obamacare last year, and they denied me."
But Lenora Bright, treasurer of the Swan Quarter Christian Church, said Hyde County will do just fine without more Medicaid or the hospital just up U.S. Highway 264 in Belhaven.
"You know, life itself tells you, in order to have something, you have to work for it," Bright said. "I know a lot of fishermen and farmers who survived many years before the hospital ever got to Belhaven."