The Republican mayor of the small town of Belhaven, NC began a 273-mile walk to Washington, DC today to draw attention to the health care crisis threatening his rural coastal community following the closure of the area's only hospital. Vidant Pungo Hospital served over 20,000 people in Beaufort and Hyde counties -- a area of North Carolina with higher-than-average poverty rates and where many residents are uninsured.
After a prayer of blessing by NC NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber, Mayor Adam O'Neal set off on foot for the nation's capital, where he plans to ask President Obama and Congress for help. On July 1, Vidant Health closed the 49-bed hospital for financial reasons, forcing residents of the Belhaven area to travel more than an hour to receive emergency care. The town had tried to take ownership of the hospital to prevent its closure, but negotiations broke down. Vidant has opened a clinic in Belhaven, but it doesn't provide emergency care.
The mayor will stop in towns and cities along the way to deliver a message that puts him at odds with his party's leadership: that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act could have prevented the hospital's closing and the creation of a "medical desert." North Carolina and 23 other states -- all of them Republican-controlled and including most states in the South -- have refused Medicaid expansion.