UPDATED: A Republican state lawmaker is considering legislation to reconfigure the leadership at the UNC Health Care as the legislature continues exploring whether the hospital system gets an unfair advantage against private entities.
Asheville Rep. Tim Moffitt, a management consultant, suggested at a legislative meeting Thursday that the 20-member board of health care system is too stacked in UNC's favor and doesn't allow for divergent viewpoints. He is planning to ask legislative staff to draft legislation that would curtail the board to a dozen members, the bulk of which are selected by the UNC System's Board of Governors instead of the health care entity.
Board of Governors members are appointed by the legislature, so in essence, the legislature would have more control over the health care system. Asked if this would politicize the board, Moffitt said "that's the whole point." (Moffitt called Friday to clarify his answer, saying he possibly misheard the question. He wants to depoliticize the board composition.)
Moffitt pitched his plan at the House Select Committee on State Assets meeting. The committee is considering whether UNC Health Care should own Rex Hospital -- a partnership opposed by WakeMed, a private nonprofit healthcare company that contends UNC's state subsidy ($18 million) gives it an unfair advantage in the marketplace. WakeMed has made a hostile takeover offer for Rex.
State Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews said letting a medical school own a hospital is a conflict and mission creep. And a number of Republican lawmakers expressed discomfort with the state competing against a private business. They peppered UNC Health Care CEO Bill Roper with questions during the hearing. Roper made the case that forcing UNC to sell Rex would cost the state money because the partnership helps subsidize the School of Medicine. He also suggested the system's governance was sound.
Roper seemed defiant in his remarks. "I don't come to you apologetic with my tail between my legs," he said. "We have nothing to be embarrassed about."
The lawmakers' philosophical concerns often strayed into personal criticism of Roper. Democrat Rep. Michael Wray asked Roper about his ties to two other corporate boards, which Roper confirmed. Wray later questioned Roper about a News & Observer story in which Roper said the alternative to taking over WakeMed would be "grinding WakeMed into the dirt."
But in his response to Wray, Roper denied that he meant to threaten WakeMed. "Let's go subpoena the writer who wrote that article," he said. "I did not say that."
Explaining Roper's response to the legislator's question, Karen McCall, a spokeswoman for UNC Health Care, said Friday that Roper was denying that he ever threatened Atkinson.
He did not mean to imply that the News & Observer had erred in its report in December.
In Day 3 of a series on the hospital battle between WakeMed and Rex Hospital, the N&O described an exchange between Roper and Atkinson at a meeting in April 2011.
Here's how Roper explained the exchange in an interview with reporter Mandy Locke last fall. Roper, after suggesting to Atkinson that UNC and WakeMed have so much in common that they should merge one day, said: "As a positive thing, it can be something that is the crowing achievement of your career, maybe my career. This is much bigger than anything personal…to put it negatively, I don't want to spend the next five years of my career trying to grind WakeMed into the dirt. That gives me no joy."
McCall said Roper will send a letter to the legislator clarifying Roper's response during Thursday's committee meeting.
This article was updated to add more information.
--John Frank and Mandy Locke, staff writers