Back in February 2018 when I was a full-time journalist, I found myself inside the former Pioneer Community Hospital in Stuart, Virginia.
It was a red-letter day for Patrick County. Governor Ralph Northam was in town along with numerous state and local politicians and an audience of about 200 people. After filing for bankruptcy in 2016, the hospital had closed its doors the previous September. Northam had arrived at the hospital to sign Senate Bill 866 into law, the first bill of his governorship. Authored by Sen. Bill Stanley, the bill was designed to keep Pioneer’s certifications and licenses current so that when a new owner purchased the hospital, they would have significantly fewer hoops to jump through to get it up and running again.
It was a hopeful day. I talked to a whole lot of folks that afternoon — only a fraction of the quotes made it into the story I wrote — and I remember the overwhelming sense that surely, sometime very soon, the hospital would reopen. It HAD to reopen. How could the entire county go even a few months without a hospital?
What I remember most vividly from that day, however, is that somewhere within the hospital, there was a humidity sensor alarm that kept ringing. No one could figure out how to completely turn it off, only silence it temporarily. It lent a distinctly “Tell-Tale Heart” sort of vibe to the proceedings.
It’s been six years since that day, and the hospital is no closer to opening its doors. If anything, the goalposts have moved even further.
I read with great interest Debbie Hall’s article in the last edition of The Enterprise, “Board chairman says hospital will not reopen.” On Jan. 22, Patrick County Board of Supervisors Chairman Brandon Simmons announced that despite being purchased by Foresight Health Group in 2022, the hospital would not be reopening. There was no reason given and no additional information provided. In a related story, Foresight apparently hasn’t paid taxes on the property in two years and the county is in the early stages of the collection process for a total of $33,101.12.
The story added that the town is trying to get Foresight to take down the “Opening in 2023” banner in front of the hospital.
I drive past that banner a couple of times per week, and every time I see, it serves as a grim confirmation of my long-held belief that Foresight’s big promises were never going to materialize.
I don’t want to come across as Mr. I Told You So, but every time I heard a new update on Foresight’s ambitious plans for the county hospital, I felt like I was watching a depressing reboot of “The Music Man” without the musical numbers or romance. Maybe I’m just cynical. Maybe it’s the fact that a cursory Google search revealed that Dr. Sameer Suhail, President and CEO of Foresight, has been embroiled in multiple well-documented legal probes involving millions of dollars of insider contracts received from Chicago’s Loretto Hospital. Who can say?
I would never, ever suggest that an enterprising individual with less than stellar intentions might come into a community and provide an easy answer to a need so desperate that local officials would be willing to overlook more red flags than you’d see at a Chinese military parade. I’m sure that Dr. Suhail is well-intentioned and that his various Chicago legal problems can easily be explained away. I say this both because it is my deeply-held belief and also for legal purposes.
However, the root of the problem that Patrick County faces has nothing to do with Foresight. It has to do with the reason Pioneer closed in the first place.
According to the article in The Enterprise, Joseph Hyak-Reinholt, COO of Foresight, issued a statement regarding Foresight’s failure to reopen the hospital.
“As 2023 turns into 2024, we have yet to develop a plan that makes sense both clinically and financially,” he wrote. “That is, we have to develop a plan that we believe can provide an adequate scope of services while also being profitable.”
And there’s the problem.
If your house catches fire, you don’t have to pay the firefighters to come put it out. If your car gets stolen, you don’t have to institute a payment plan with the police so that they’ll go out and look for it. And yet I’ve never heard anyone complain about “socialized firefighting” or “socialized law enforcement.”
When I was inside Pioneer back in 2018, I heard several people say that if no one was willing to reopen the hospital, the government needed to step in and do it. I had a feeling that if I said to those same folks that that would be socialized medicine, they would not have been pleased.
The situation with the Patrick County hospital is a prime example of why we need universal healthcare in this country. If an underserved community desperately needs a hospital, it shouldn’t have to wait until someone can figure out how to do it while still turning a profit. I would much rather have my healthcare paid for by my taxes rather than the current system of paying a bloated hive of insurance company leeches even MORE money so that they can occasionally tell me that after consulting some soulless corporate ghoul, they have decided that I don’t actually need the medical procedure that my doctor recommended.
The old joke is that universal healthcare is such a complex problem that only 32 out of the world’s 33 developed nations have managed to make it work. Until this country figures out that healthcare is a human right, I don’t know that the Patrick County hospital will ever reopen.
I realize that “socialized medicine” is a scary concept, but I imagine that it becomes a lot less scary when you’re in the back of an ambulance on the long road to Carilion Franklin in Rocky Mount.