by Steve Herring, The Goldsboro News-Argus
State Rep. John Bell said he is confident in state Department of Health and Human Services assurances that the new Cherry Hospital
will open Oct. 1 — four years after its original projected completion date.
It is possible patients will be in the hospital before October, he said. Bell said he also is satisfied with the response and answers to
questions posed to DHHS concerning the delay.
“They are aware there are a lot of eyes watching this, and there are a number of legislators — Rep. (Jimmy) Dixon, Sen. (Louis) Pate (both 0f Mount Olive), Rep. (Leo) Daughtry (of Smithfield) — staying on top of this to make sure that it does get done,” said Bell, the House majority whip. “Part of the things they are looking at are one, first and foremost, get the doors open and get patients in the facility. “No. 2, once that is accomplished, go back and look at what went wrong and hold the parties responsible, and three, go back and look that precautions and procedures are put into place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. They will actually do that with the Broughton Hospital as well.”
The Broughton psychiatric hospital project in western North Carolina is being built by Archer Weston, the Cherry Hospital contractor, and a lot of the same issues are cropping up there, Bell said.
Bell said he has been briefed on both projects.
Construction on the three-story, 410,000-square-foot Cherry Hospital psychiatric facility, located next to the State Employees Credit Union on West Ash Street, began in 2010 and was to have been completed in 2012.
Cherry Hospital currently has slightly fewer than 1,000 employees, but will increase to about 1,400 when the new facility opens. The addition of employees will have a “significant” economic impact on Goldsboro and Wayne County, state and local officials said. During a June 2 press conference at the Legislative Building, Bell, Dixon, Daughtry and Pate, the Senate deputy president pro temper, expressed frustration at the delay and a lack of clear answers as to why the project is so far behind schedule.
They asked DHHS for a detailed explanation on the project’s status, timelines for opening and reasons for delay.
Bell said he did not know if the press conference played a role, but that the state accepted occupancy of the 316-bed facility the day after the press conference.
“They are in the process of moving stuff in, and they have a timeline of when they are going to be able to get everybody situated and also get patients in,” Bell said. “I have learned that nothing is coincidental in politics. We noticed that press conference on Tuesday of that week, and then they received the occupancy on Wednesday afternoon.
“Whether the press conference pushed that up or not, I haven’t asked that, and they haven’t told me that. But I do think the fact that a number of legislators are concerned about this and were pushing for issues — I know that had an impact.”
There were issues with the project contractor and the subcontractors, he said.
Bell said he was shocked at the list of issues compiled by DHHS.
“There were errors that were made that should never have been made if the contractor had done their job and had the correct oversight,” Bell said. “You also had some issues about some subcontractors not getting paid, and when they are not getting paid, they are not doing the work.”
Problems at the site included simple things being done wrong like steps that were not the correct height and plumbing not done the appropriate way, Bell said.
“One of the things they (DHHS officials) said is you have a subcontractor who hasn’t gotten paid,” Bell said. “They are supposed to come in and put the HVAC unit in, but yet the folks wiring the building didn’t get paid. So now you have a building that is not wired. You have the HVAC people ready to put that in, but the building is not wired, and the contractor has not showed back up because they haven’t got paid. If they don’t get paid, they are not going to work.
“You have that situation, and that may have taken six months to resolve. That is some of the things that they were facing, and that is the contractor’s fault.”
Then there were several bomb threats that halted work as well, Bell said.
Bell said he has met several times with DHHS Secretary Rick Brajer, who has only been on the job for about eight months. Once the request was made, Brajer has been very easy to work with, Bell said. “He took all of the questions that I had, and called me within 48 hours and said he was ready to get all of the information that I needed,” Bell said. “I will tell you, he has been very attentive and has been willing to work with me, answer any questions that I had. “Right before we adjourned session, he brought his whole staff in, and they went through and answered every question that I had and also did a PowerPoint presentation to me with a timeline and all of the issues from start to finish they have uncovered with the project.” Brajer understands that there is problem, and that it is his job to fix the problem, Bell said.
“His No. 1 job is to get those doors open and then go back and handle the other issues,” he said.
Bell said he has asked for a tour of the hospital this week and to allow the media to attend as well. A joint press release with all of the information he requested also will be released, Bell said. Just as important as finding out what went wrong is ensuring procedures are in place to keep it from happening again, Bell said. “The downside is that the people I met with, a lot of them were all new, under a new secretary,” he said. “So they are having to learn and dig information from the past. You have a little bit of lag there as far as history of the project. They were very attentive to anything I asked.”
Also, DHHS has had a lot on its plate including Medicaid reform and the new Broughton Hospital, he said.
“I believe there have been at least three or four secretaries of Health and Human Services since the project has started,” he said. “You have it lasting through two administrations. Gov. (Pat) McCrory’s administration inherited this. So that is the first problem, change of hands in leadership and change of hands in secretaries.”
Up next will be to determine what is to be done with the old Cherry Hospital.
“One of the things I have talked to them about is when they get to that point if they will work with me, I will work with them through the budget process to make sure the hospital is fully staffed, fully funded and that we are able to work on what to do with the old Cherry Hospital,” Bell said.
During the June press conference Dixon said some fault rests with legislators who were late to step in.
Bell agreed that it is a lesson learned.
“It is our job to represent the citizens and the district, and we have a project like this going on and after the number phone calls that I received, and a lot of us received them, it was time to move,” Bell said. “Looking back, I wish we had done this sooner. But we are where we are right now and it is time to move forward.”