by Nora Edinger
CHARLESTON -- Turf wars between Clarksburg and Bridgeport and Harrison and Marion counties were openly discussed during the final day of a hearing on United Hospital Center's plan to relocate from western Clarksburg to Interstate 79.
Robert O'Neil, UHC's attorney, asked a board member from Fairmont General Hospital what it would take to bring that institution back to the table for merger negotiations. While the hearing is technically on UHC's solo plan, the possibility of a merged institution is UHC's preference and has dominated the process. Fairmont General also is pursuing a replacement facility a few miles to the north on I-79.
"If the Catholics and Protestants can put their differences aside, can't Marion and Harrison counties put their differences aside?" O'Neil asked Fairmont General board member Mike Martin. He was referring to the previous merger of the Union Protestant and St. Mary's hospitals to create UHC.
While Martin acknowledged the humor of the situation, he said it isn't that simple. He said Fairmont General's board feels committed to keeping community health care actually in the community and was alarmed at the fire UHC's plan had drawn because it involved a move from Clarksburg to Bridgeport.
If Clarksburg officials were willing to publicly oppose UHC, Martin questioned what the reaction would be on the streets of Marion County, particularly among senior citizens, to hospital services entirely leaving the county.
Sonia Chambers, chair of the state Health Care Authority that will decide on the dual plans but cannot force a merger, questioned UHC President Bruce Carter on the specifics of the turf battles. She specifically wanted to know what would happen to patients' transportation needs and the city budgets of Clarksburg and Fairmont if a merged hospital left the cities for the interstate.
"No matter where the hospital goes in our service area, transportation is a problem for some people," Carter said. He has previously said there would be some sort of bus service to the proposed hospital.
He said UHC also acknowledges that its move would hurt the Clarksburg city budget in the six-figure range and a merged hospital would do something similar to Fairmont. While the non-profits do not pay property or business and occupation taxes, they do pay fire and sewage fees and surrounding doctors' offices are taxed as for-profit entities.
But, he added, he does not believe such funding should be the primary concern for siting a new hospital.
"We do not make bicycle parts. I've seen people die in my hospital," Carter said. He added that a person needing emergency heart surgery at 3 a.m. is concerned about health care quality and access, not if a hospital is a good source of community income.
Chambers also questioned turf issues in light of the success of other regional economic development in the North Central area, particularly the West Virginia High Technology Consortium on I-79.
"If that's really what's helping in North Central West Virginia, why should we be looking at this (project) differently," she said.
Martin and Margaret Ann Bailey, a Clarksburg city council member, countered Chambers' remarks.
Martin said hospitals are not on a parallel track with economic development and have unique community-service obligations. Bailey said hospitals deal with a service even more intimate than public education, the latter of whose recent regionalization she said has left small communities damaged.
"We bare not just our bodies but our souls to those physicians. ... It's much closer to home," Bailey said of the importance of in-community health care.
She said UHC also has a historical obligation to Clarksburg and the surrounding communities that have provided it with volunteers and equipment donations for decades.
Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or, by e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org.