Losing Asheboro’s hospital, with 1,100 employees and a $55 million annual payroll, is an unthinkable prospect for Darrell Frye, the chairman of the Randolph County Commission.
“We’re a county of 146,000 people, including 26,000 in Asheboro, and the hospital is a destination for thousands of emergency room calls for county-owned ambulances,” says Frye, a commissioner for 38 years. “If there’s not a hospital, that patient has to go to High Point or Greensboro and someone in critical condition might not make it.”
But the possibility was made starkly evident this week when Greensboro-based Cone Health ended talks at potentially becoming a successor organization to take over Randolph Health. It was a tough blow for the Asheboro hospital, which has filed for bankruptcy protection after years of financial struggles. It is seeking a $20 million state loan to help cover expected operating losses over the next three years under a rural hospital support program passed by state lawmaker..
Cone Health “simply cannot extend itself to take on a project with this level of risk at this time,” the system noted in a press release. It cited “several significant operational and clinical challenges which are only made greater by what Cone Health and all health care systems are experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Cone Health reported operating income of $62 million on revenue of $2.19 billion in its 2019 fiscal year, a 2.8% operating margin. Its clinical results and patient satisfaction historically rank among the top performing N.C. hospitals in Business North Carolina’s annual survey.
The Greensboro system should know more about Randolph Health than any other group. It owns 50% of Randolph Cancer Center, an oncology clinic, with Randolph Health. And it has a 10-year agreement to provide management services for the hospital through 2026.
Frye says next steps are unclear though he had received a call yesterday from U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ office about the possibility of receiving some federal stimulus funds tied to rural hospitals. Frye also knows a lot about hospitals, having served as a director at High Point Regional for 20 years before resigning six weeks ago to avoid a conflicts of interest with his county commission role. He noted that Wake Forest Baptist, which owns the High Point hospital, had also looked at Randolph Health.
To receive the $20 million state loan, Randolph Health needs to sign a partnership agreement that is vetted by Chris Ellington, president of the UNC Health Care Network Hospitals, and then the Local Government Commission, Frye says. Under state law, UNC Health Care can’t become a partner, though it operates a hospital in neighboring Chatham County, he adds.
“We’re not giving up and we’re not quitting,” Frye says. “We’ll keep looking for a solution.”