WNC hospitals search for a lifeline

Once again, WNC health care landscape shifts

op frHaywood County’s hospital was in trouble. The average number of patients staying overnight had dropped precipitously, causing severe problems to the hospital’s cash flow. The relationship between the administration and most of the physicians was fractured. Many of those doctors and many Haywood County citizens feared the hospital might close if it didn’t adapt to the fast-changing health care landscape.

Though that sounds eerily similar to just a few years ago, it was 1993. I was a new-to-the-job 33-year-old editor of The Mountaineer in Waynesville. i was just a few months in town when rumblings of the hospital’s woes began trickling out. A group of five or six doctors decided they wanted the local media to hear their side — off the record — and so invited my wife and I to a dinner at one of their homes. 

They were concerned about their own futures, the hospital, and the community. These were men and women who had built lives here, whose children went to the schools and whose families were woven into the fabric of the community. For several hours, I mostly listened as these men and women who were in the early- to mid-stages of their medical careers filled me in on how they thought the leadership of the hospital was failing.

Turns out these physicians were right, and soon the top administrator of the hospital left. That same year, 1993, the hospital hired a new CEO who came in and made many changes and improvements that set the medical center on a better course for a decade before he also became embroiled in controversy. His name was David Rice.

Haywood Regional Medical Center is now set to be purchased by Duke LifePoint Healthcare by the end of this month and will never again be locally owned. The same is about to happen to hospitals in Sylva and Bryson City, which will also become part of Duke LifePoint.

That dinner and the events of 1993 first came crashing back into my memory when Rice’s tenure ended in 2008. Most who have followed this story recall how Rice hid the news of failed federal inspections from HRMC’s board and staff. For a couple of years prior to that precipitous occurrence, many physicians, nurses and other staff had been telling us — “us” now being The Smoky Mountain News — that Rice was dodging the truth and playing Russian roulette with the hospital’s future. 

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Finally, once federal funding was  cut off, the dam broke, the information went public and the hospital did indeed nearly go under. Rice was forced to resign within a couple of weeks.

Since 2008, the landscape for healthcare in the region this newspaper covers — Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, along with the Qualla Boundary — has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mission Hospital in Asheville has created affiliations with Angel Medical in Franklin and Highlands-Cashiers. As mentioned earlier, hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain are about to be purchased by Duke LifePoint after a relatively short-lived affiliation with Carolinas HealthCare out of Charlotte.

And from my seat, I see a profound change. Since my arrival in Western North Carolina, the spirit of independence among natives of this region has always inspired me. Never have I lived in or traveled to a place where people take such collective pride in not depending on others, especially the government or big business. 

That independence also reached to local institutions like the hospital. When I first arrived here, everyone wanted the hospital to stay local. 

Now, I don’t think most care if the hospital is locally owned. Instead, they want a quality hospital in their community with quality physicians and nurses and staff who still live and work here. And that’s why I think this sale to Duke LifePoint is a very good option that should serve the community well. We will keep jobs, keep a hospital in each community, and be better able to deal with a health care industry that is — still — changing at breakneck speed.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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