Doctors at the University of North Carolina’s Area Health Education Center (AHEC) say they have been pressured to go along with the university’s controversial plan to close Horace Williams Airport (IGX) in Chapel Hill.
The on-campus field allows doctors to fly to far-flung areas of the state quickly and efficiently.
The university wants to close Horace Williams and build Carolina North, a new research center, administrative office complex and faculty housing project, on the land. Doctors have been saying that moving the airplanes they use for their medical outreach programs to Raleigh-Durham International Airport will cause them to waste valuable time reaching patients throughout the state.
From the beginning of the controversy three years ago, doctors have said that university administrators have made veiled – and not-so-veiled – threats against those speaking publicly against the airport’s closure. AOPA recently paraphrased one doctor’s statement, to a state legislative committee, that supporting the airport could affect his career negatively. He was among about a dozen people who spoke up at an Appropriations Committee hearing on the airport closure in June.
Closing the airport is considered a major step toward fulfilling the university’s plans, something AHEC and general aviation advocacy groups have been fighting for two years.
“It’s clear that this airport is a vital asset to the community, AHEC and the university,” said Greg Pecoraro, AOPA vice president of regional affairs. “These doctors aren’t in an easy position, yet they are standing up for Horace Williams because it provides them the fastest response time for medical flights.”
A BRIEF HISTORY
In 2004 and 2006, the state legislature was mandated to undertake studies of whether closing Horace Williams would damage or destroy AHEC, one of UNC’s premier medical programs, which routinely uses IGX as its base for flying UNC School of Medicine doctors and other health professionals to patient clinics and seminars throughout the state. The university’s influential chancellor, James Moeser, wants to begin the Carolina North project’s construction on the flat, cleared airport site immediately.
While the General Assembly’s 2004 Horace Williams Study Committee was appointed and met at least twice, legislative leaders chose to avoid actually performing the study. Airport closure impact was slated for legislative study again in the 2006 budget act, but with UNC lobbyists again urging House and Senate leadership to use their power to scuttle the study. The decisions not to study were never subjected to public review or debate. It seems probable that the reasons included fear that doctors might publicly express their belief that moving AHEC air operations to Raleigh-Durham Airport (RDU), as UNC has planned, would harm or kill the AHEC program because far fewer doctors could participate due to the impact on their schedules.
Donors from an organization called Citizens for Higher Education gave $425,000 to General Assembly candidates in the 2006 election. CHE is a PAC established by UNC trustees and their friends, many of whom are in the development community and could gain from Carolina North construction. CHE set two initial goals, one of which has been accomplished: persuading the legislature that UNC and NC State should treat all scholarship athletes as in-state residents for tuition purposes. The other issue was enabling UNC trustees to close Horace Williams Airport.
Despite those CHE efforts, two subcommittees of the key House Appropriations Committee heard testimony from UNC doctors on June 14. Also testifying were two of UNC’s advocates for IGX closure, Jack Evans and Kevin Fitzgerald, who spoke about why Carolina North is important to the university. Nobody disputed that Carolina North is important and will happen in some form, but the doctors finally had their say.
Dr. William Henry, a pediatric cardiologist, was especially compelling, citing the known losses if AHEC is forced to fly from RDU. UNC and AHEC will serve thousands fewer children and poor patients with top-of-the-line medical care, he stated, pointing out that he and his team of cardiologists make such flights at least five times a month using AHEC Med-Air services out of IGX. Dr. Marianne Muhlebach, a pulmonologist, cited similar concerns for her practice. All of the doctors appeared to be risking their professional positions, due to pressure from university administrators. GANews was told by one of the doctors that this was “not subtle pressure” and “kept a number of other doctors from testifying.”
Apparently the Health and Human Services and the Education subcommittees, with jurisdiction over UNC and AHEC funding, got the doctors’ message and seemed interested in hearing other comments on the airport issue.
Since fall of 2006, the UNC administration has claimed that the legislature already has granted it permission to close the airport. In truth, the 2006 budget provision was titled, “UNC To Keep Horace Williams Airport Open” and cites the end of the Spring 2006 legislative session not as when UNC may close the airport, but as the time by which the legislature, after hearing from interested health care providers, would decide whether the airport should continue to provide convenient air access from Chapel Hill to AHEC physicians and their 15,000 patients annually.
Meantime, UNC has simply refused to consider the effect of airport closure on AHEC.
The Friends of Horace Williams group said that “fair reporting of the hearing and issue will yet allow the concerns of doctors and pilots statewide a reasonable airing.”
For more information: Airport.UNC.edu