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OPINION

ECU Health partnership is good news

Posted on January 5, 2022

OpinionColumns

Tom Campbell

Tom Campbell

Having lived through the past couple of years, you will no doubt agree with the 1983 Anne Murray song, “We Sure Could Use a Little Good News Today.” I’m happy to oblige with some.

Starting the first of this year, East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine and Vidant Health have completed a joint operating agreement and formed a new entity, ECU Heath. Why is this good news, and why is it good news for all of North Carolina?

For many years, Vidant and the Brody School of Medicine have worked together, but that relationship at times has been tenuous, with separate leadership and boards. This new joint operating agreement creates one entity (although both will have separate legal identities) that will streamline administration and records, create a more transparent and seamless teaching hospital for the med school’s students and, most importantly, result in better and less costly health services for more than 1.4 million residents.

This new agreement is good news for our state because the Brody School of Medicine ranks No. 1 in North Carolina for training primary care physicians who remain in North Carolina to practice and who serve rural areas.

Access to health care in rural areas is scarce and getting more so. Rural hospitals are closing, 11% of our population lacks health insurance and health statistics are alarming, as the rural poverty rate is estimated at 18%.

Not only are ECU doctors trained to serve in primary care, they have a calling to go to underserved areas. Three of our 100 counties — all rural — have no doctors; 20 have only a few physicians. It’s predicted we will have a nationwide shortage of primary care physicians of up to 55,000 by 2033. ECU’s training is essential and has been its mission from the beginning.

Leo Jenkins, at the time president of East Carolina College, understood the need and had a passion to start the fourth school in the state to train doctors. He and Robert Morgan, then the N.C. Senate president pro tem, East Carolina alum and chair of the East Carolina trustees, launched a campaign to make it a reality.

It was immediately opposed by former UNC President Bill Friday and UNC Chapel Hill. My dad was serving in the N.C. House at the time, representing Wilson, Nash and Edgecombe counties.

Dad told me Jenkins and Morgan called a meeting of all the eastern North Carolina legislators. Jenkins made the case forcefully, saying that this medical school would be the making of the eastern half of our state. Its mission was the training of a new generation of doctors to replace the cadre of aging family doctors.

Morgan told the caucus that he knew many of its members were graduates of UNC Chapel Hill and that they were getting a lot of pressure from that faction to vote against the school. Morgan reminded legislators that their job was to represent their districts, and they surely knew how badly better medical care was needed.

Both Morgan and Jenkins told the lawmakers that this would likely be the most significant piece of legislation they would ever pass and promised to rally support for them in their districts, finally urging them to lobby their fellow members. It worked.

Jenkins and Morgan were prescient. Not only has the Brody School of Medicine been an economic engine for the east, but it has been invaluable as access has dramatically declined and costs have greatly escalated.

For some years, there have been efforts to make the relationship between Vidant and the Brody School a better partnership. Many have supported the effort. ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers knew that history and understood the importance. Working with former Vidant CEO Mike Waldrum, now CEO of ECU Health, and together with the cooperation and urging of the UNC Board of Governors, ECU trustees and Vidant’s board, they made the final successful push.

Now ECU Health has a similar operating structure to UNC Health, Duke Health and Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist. This is a healthy step for all North Carolinians.

After two years of virus, turmoil and rancor, this is good news we can use. Time will prove it a historic event.

Tom Campbell is a North Carolina Hall of Fame broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program “N.C. Spin” that aired for 22 ½ years. Email him at tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

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