Hospital plays dirty politics

by Jim Dowell

Just when we thought we’d seen the last of negative campaigning for a while, comes news that a local hospital has been slinging mud and hiding data in an effort to block its competition. Last year, Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and Novant Health (parent company of Forsyth Medical Center) both applied to the state for a Certificate of Need so that each could build a new hospital: BMC in Davie, and Novant in Clemmons. But while Novant’s staff busied themselves demonstrating need to the state, Baptist officials busied themselves with a fear and smear campaign. The result was a CON for Baptist’s Davie project, and an initial rejection of the proposed Clemmons hospital. Late last month, documents surfaced showing that BMC began its dirty tricks campaign by frightening Davie residents, telling them that if they didn’t support a new hospital in Advance, then Baptist would be unable to renovate their existing facility and the county would be left without a hospital of any kind. Then, in a brilliant but devious stroke of political maneuvering that would put Karl Rove to shame, BMC deflected blame away from themselves for the threat which they had generated. According to a report in the Winston Salem Journal, Baptist circulated a flier to Davie residents in October 2007 which stated that Forsyth Medical Center’s plans to build a hospital in Clemmons was the reason why a new project in Davie was being jeopardized. “The State won’t allow both to be built,” said the marketing flier. Naturally residents of Davie county feared losing their only hospital, so they mobilized behind BMC in favor of its proposed new hospital, and in opposition to Novant’s plans in Clemmons. The problem is that Baptist misled Davie residents because the state could have approved construction of both hospitals, and still can. But the subterfuge didn’t end there. While citizens of Davie County were being misled by one piece of propaganda, residents of Clemmons and Lewisville received an equally scurrilous letter sent by an attorney for Baptist. The missive identified a potential threat to their quality of life, including from hospital traffic and ambulance sirens, should Novant build a hospital in Clemmons. But thanks to evidence unearthed last month before the NC office of Administrative Hearings, we now know that Baptist kept hidden a traffic study they had commissioned which found that a Clemmons hospital would not have an adverse effect on local neighborhoods. It’s no wonder that Novant CEO Paul Wiles told a CON hearing last September, “WFUBMC has lost its moral compass in how the institution and its leadership have interacted with the public during this particular CON battle.” But in an article published on Oct. 23, Baptist Hospital interim President Donnie Lambeth told the Winston-Salem Journal that he had been unaware of the traffic report, and had first seen it the day before. Moreover, when Lambeth discovered misleading language in the Davie marketing flier, he had it removed from subsequent versions. Lambeth is a good and honest man who stepped into a situation that attorneys and others had mishandled, but that doesn’t make Wiles’ lament any less valid. After an initial rejection, Novant submitted a second application to the state in mid July, and is awaiting a positive outcome. Given the recent revelations regarding Baptist Medical Center’s unethical behavior, a Certificate of Need should be granted to Novant posthaste. Until then, BMC should withdraw any objections it has to Novant’s planned hospital in Clemmons. For Baptist to argue that two hospitals can’t operate so close together is disingenuous to say the least. After all, Baptist Hospital and Forsyth Medical Center are both located on the same street, and have co-existed for decades, both providing much needed services to the public. Clearly BMC acted badly in this matter, but the state’s hands aren’t exactly clean either. The CON system runs contrary to a free market society. It should be up to the corporation, not the government, to decide how many plants it wants to build, or how much equipment it wants to purchase. And so, lawmakers should take a look at abolishing a bad system that allowed some bad actors to CON the public.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).