The meeting room at the Cashiers Rec Park was jam packed with concerned citizens who lined the walls to hear from a group who are upset over the lack of doctors in the area on July 11.
Pam Kerr, Mary Jane Bills, and Ellen Haug organized the “Concerned Citizens Health Forum” to discuss issues with the existing and future-health needs in the Highlands-Cashiers area.
Of primary concern was the lack of doctors and support staff to properly serve the Plateau. Kerr said the only primary care physician currently in Cashiers is Dr. Thomas Duncan who has practices in both Highlands and Cashiers.
The problem is, Dr. Duncan is set to retire in September. So, who’s responsibility is it to retain new doctors?
HCA Healthcare bought Mission Health in February of this year for approx. $1.5B. The deal entailed the purchase of six hospitals in Western North Carolina, which includes Highlands-Cashiers Hospital and its satellites therefore, the responsibility falls on HCA.
The $1.5B went into the newly formed Highlands-Cashiers Health Foundation (formerly Highlands Hospital Foundation), which is required to give $75M annually to grants aimed at improving healthcare in WNC.
Foundation Board Member Paul Robshaw said HCA has assured HCHF they are working diligently to hire new doctors, but it is difficult attracting them to the area and keeping them here. Enticements to lure doctors to the Plateau include offering memberships at country clubs, but it is still a difficult process.
After Thursday’s meeting, Robshaw said he understands the community’s frustration.
“HCA is calling the shots here,” said Robshaw. “What the community is asking for is justified, they need doctors, but it’s challenging for HCA to get them here.”
Those in attendance asked why some of the annual $75M in grant money is not being used to hire doctors and Robshaw said the nonprofit HCHF cannot give money to for-profit HCA.
Walter Clark, Chairman of the newly formed Highlands Cashiers Health Foundation (HCHF), formerly the Highlands Hospital Foundation, attended the meeting to hear the concerns of the people. As a Cashiers resident, he said he understands there is a shortage of doctors, both in Cashiers and Highlands.
“I went to feel the tenor of meeting, to hear concerns, and see if we could help,” said Clark. “It was a good-will gesture. To hear people’s voice and see what we could do.”
Clark said HCHF can’t go out and hire physicians, but HCA/Mission can. However, HCMF can help recruit physicians to feed into whatever system is available in Highlands or Cashiers. Currently, HCA/Mission is relying on its website for recruitment — http://www.comework for us.com
He said there are two issues at play; a physician shortage, and the possibility of a consolidated multi-use facility in Cashiers.
“These are two totally separate things and I wish I had the answer,” said Clark. “The physician shortage situation needs to be handled first and foremost. A new facility is hypothetical and is a possibility way down the road.”
The HCHF owns 8.04 acres in Cashiers, which was bought 10 years ago with the idea of building a heath park on the property. HCHF has no intention of building the facility, but a developer could build one. Clark said nothing is in the works as of now.
However, since HCA/Mission owns the facility across from High Hampton on Highway 107 and a clinic facility on Slab Town Road in Cashiers, Walters said he believes HCA/Mission would like to consolidate the two in one location as a multi- purpose clinic at some point.
Development and consolidation may be in the discussion phase, but Kerr said HCA is forcing Dr. Duncan into retirement and the solution in the meantime is to have a travelling doctor come to the area to provide medical services, which she said is not enough.
Vision Cashiers is another entity in the mix. It is a nonprofit organization formed last year which took over the Village Conservancy – and it consists of seven task forces led by community members concerned about education, housing, and health and wellness.
Vision Cashiers would like to recruit physicians, too – retired and semi- retired – to fill the void in Cashiers and in Highlands. This is nothing new. For decades Highlands-Cashiers Hospital and then Mission recruited semi-retired or retired primary care physicians.
Younger recruits just don’t stay — usually leaving after a few years — and no one says why.
Clark said independent doctors are a possibility – like Dr. Scott Baker in Highlands — but it’s extremely costly to open and operate an independent practice,
Back in Cashiers, a petition has been created to generate support for retaining Dr. Duncan until a transition to new doctors is made.
“The goal is to get HCA to renegotiate with Dr. Duncan to stay until a full-time doctor is hired and in place, and to get immediate support for Duncan who currently has a five-week wait for an appointment because he is doing the job of two doctors and has been since January. HCA put Dr. Duncan in an untenable position without regard to consequences for our community.”
Kerr added that HCA has known this staffing issue would be a problem and is not doing enough to hire more doctors.
“We need the community’s support in impressing the importance of retaining the only primary care doctor here covering Cashiers, Glenville, Sapphire, and Toxaway,” she said. “Dr. Duncan is well regarded by this community as competent and caring. A temporary doctor is not a solution. Extend Dr. Duncan’s contract until a full-time doctor is hired, get him the additional support needed to cover two practices now, and get a traveling doctor in now. HCA has let the situation deteriorate since January.”
Those in support of Kerr’s goal can sign the petition HERE and drop off/pick up petitions at the Albert-Carlton Cashiers Community Library or the Cashiers Rec Center.
Pictured at the top of the article are attendees of the “Concerned Citizens Health Forum” raising their hands if they are frustrated with the healthcare services in the area.