07/15/2014 02:56 pm ET

Republican Mayor Partners With Moral Monday Movement, Walks 273 Miles For Health Care Access


A Republican mayor has partnered with the progressive-backed Moral Monday movement to protest the closure of his small-town's hospital.

Belhaven, North Carolina Mayor Adam O'Neal set off on a 14-day, 273-mile walk to Washington, D.C. on Monday to draw attention to what he calls the "medical desert" that was created in his area after Vidant Health closed the Vidant Pungo hospital on July 1.

The area's residents must now travel as many as 84 miles to receive care.

"I feel that it's so wrong that the more attention it gets, the more likelihood it will have a good outcome for the community," O'Neal told a local news station, explaining why he was undertaking his pilgrimage to the nation's capital.

The hospital served over 20,000 people in counties that have high rates of poverty and uninsured residents. North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory (R) have rejected an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

Vidant Health CEO David Herman told The Huffington Post last year that North Carolina's decision to forego the Medicaid expansion contributed to his company's decision to close the hospital.

O'Neal said he hopes to meet with members of Congress and Attorney General Eric Holder to bring attention to the plight of small communities trying to access emergency care.

North Carolina's NAACP chapter partnered with O'Neal in June to file a Title VI complaint under the Civil Rights Act with the Department of Justice over the hospital closure, arguing that the area's minority communities have been put disproportionately at risk.

"Health care, particularly access to rural health care, in economically disadvantaged communities, is not a Republican or Democratic issue, it's a moral issue," Rev. William Barber, head of the NC NAACP chapter, said on a Tuesday press call. "Rural hospitals like Pungo are literally hospitals that make the difference between life and death."

Barber joined O'Neal for a portion of the mayor's walk from Plymouth, North Carolina, framing it as a "moral exercise."

On the call, O'Neal castigated his party for not expanding Medicaid in the state.

"More [rural hospitals] have closed in the last year than in the past 15 years," O'Neal said. "I don't understand the position Republicans have taken in North Carolina. ... I don't see a basis for their position."

"I think there should be some kind of legislation that the Health and Human Services secretary has to sign off for critical access hospitals to close," he added.

Barber explained on the call that the rationale for the Title VI complaint was based on what he called Vidant's "reneged" promise.

"You cannot take public money and then turn around and use those funds in a way that is discriminatory," he said.



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