December 2, 2010

HealthEast will close Hatteras clinic on Dec. 30


It’s official. HeathEast Family Care will close its Hatteras office on Dec. 30.

Contents, including patient files, will be transferred to the remaining HealthEast clinic in Avon starting the first week of January, said Travis Douglass, vice-president and executive director of University Health Systems physicians, which contracts the three UHS doctors on Hatteras Island.

None of the 14 or so full-time staff will be laid off, and hours in Avon will be extended, Douglass said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.  Specific details are still being hammered out.

“It’s unclear what the hours will be,” he said. “There will be greater coverage at lunch and on the weekends and early evenings. There will be seasonally-adjusted hours as well.”

Douglass said that the doctors are free to do after-hours calls, “but that is not something that we’re working on.”

In July, Greenville-based University Health Systems of Eastern North Carolina informed Dare County officials that it could no longer afford to operate both clinics. The county was given the option of paying $300,000 annually to keep both clinics open or to continue its $100,000 annual payment but one clinic would close. 

Subsequent efforts by the county to find another provider to operate the clinics proved fruitless, and the county Board of Commissioners voted last month to continue the $100,000 subsidy. Since the county kitty was down to bare bones, the board agreed that the additional $200,000 needed for the second clinic was not available.

The clinic is located on 1.5 acres of land that was given to Dare County by an act of Congress in August of 1966. The land had been part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and was donated by the Department of Interior on the condition that it would be used only as a health facility. The legislation specified that if the property was no longer used to locate a health clinic, it would revert to the federal government.

The clinic was opened in the late ‘60s through the efforts of Hatteras villagers after the land was donated. It was the first medical clinic on Hatteras Island.

University Health Systems has not had to pay rent there, and the county has paid many of the costs for utilities and upkeep.

Although the health system reportedly pays about $125,000 a year to lease the 10-year-old Avon clinic, it has indicated that it preferred keeping that one open.

Bobby Outten, Dare County manager, said that an ad hoc committee is working to find another health-related occupant for the Hatteras building so that the terms of the land donation are maintained. Potential options include using it for county Health Department business or for health care service provided by a nurse practitioner.

“We’re going to make sure that facility does not revert back to the Park Service,” he said.

But no matter what fills the space, closing the Hatteras clinic, located 15 miles south of the Avon office, will create hardships, said Dennis Robinson, a member of the ad hoc clinic committee and president of the Hatteras Village Civic Association. 

“I think it’s a huge impact definitely on the southern part of the island,” he said.

With no public transportation available on the island, the elderly and disabled -- the frailest and neediest -- Robinson said, will be most affected.  Whoever the new tenant is that ends up occupying the Hatteras building, he said, it is unlikely that the occupant will be able to make up for the health services that have been lost.

Robinson said that a meeting will be held in the near future to hear input from the community.

“Hatteras was the first to have a medical center,” he said, “and losing it is not something they want to think about.”

Steve Evans, owner of Beach Pharmacy in Hatteras, said that he expects the closure to hurt his business, but he couldn’t predict to what extent. Although he also owns a pharmacy in Avon, he said that the Hatteras drug store is critical to Ocracoke Island residents as well as Hatteras islanders. 

Evans said he has heard from many folks who were unhappy and worried about the health systems’ decision, some to the point where they’re threatening to leave the island.

“It upsets them that all they seem to care about is the money,” he said about UHS. “The health care is going to suffer.”

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