UNC doctors say airport lets them serve those most in need

Doctors lined up Thursday to oppose moving their air terminal from Chapel Hill to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The House Appropriations Committee held a joint subcommittee meeting to hear testimony on a plan to close Horace Williams Airport and build a $2 million to $3 million hangar at RDU.

Horace Williams serves university-affiliated doctors who travel to remote parts of the state to provide specialized care for patients and training for other physicians. The Area Health Education Centers program served 17,500 patients in 2005-06.

The move would make way for Carolina North, a satellite campus being planned by UNC-Chapel Hill. Carolina North Executive Director Jack Evans said UNC-CH needs the new campus both to expand current programs and to promote innovation.

UNC-CH doctors and pilots complained that adding at least an hour to their travel time on the day of each flight would take away time they could spend treating patients and might prevent them from going altogether.

Dr. Bill Henry, chairman of pediatric cardiology at UNC-CH, said poor children in places such as his hometown of Dunn would suffer if specialists lose the convenience of taking off and landing in Chapel Hill. "I represent people who don't have a voice here today," he said. "There will be a reduction in service."

Legislators likewise were cool toward the move. "These [doctors] also have a lot of other duties," said state Sen. William Purcell, a retired pediatrician from Laurinburg. "I think it's going to really undermine what [they've] worked so hard to make happen."

State Rep. Bob England, another doctor, said UNC-CH's Medical Air Operations lift a burden off families in his distant Rutherford County. Instead of missing school and work to drive four hours each way to see a specialist in Chapel Hill, a family can drive to a local clinic and see an expert within 15 minutes of his or her landing.

"He hasn't even had time for his stethoscope to get cold," England said.

Another airport?

University administrators also affirmed the value of the Area Health Education Centers but repeated the board of trustees' position that the program can work well out of RDU.

In a 2005 interview, Chancellor James Moeser said the university had looked at building an airport on nearly 30 tracts in Orange, Chatham and Alamance counties that ranged in price from nearly $35 million to $60 million. Although some might have worked, Moeser said, the political and bureaucratic reality was that putting up a new facility could take 15 to 20 years.

On Thursday, Kevin Fitzgerald, executive associate dean for finance and administration, said UNC-CH would again support a search for a new airport closer to Chapel Hill if another agency took the lead.

"If there's an interest locally for there to be an airport, the university would be pleased to participate in that," he said.

Rep. Louis Pate, a retired airman from Wayne County, said AHEC's Medical Air Operations need to remain close to UNC Hospitals, and it might be best to keep them at Horace Williams.

"It is much more expensive to move an airport than it is to move a campus or a cluster of buildings," Pate said.

Rep. Rick Glazier, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on education, asked Dr. Thomas Bacon, AHEC director, how many physicians would drop out of the program and how many services would be cut if the air terminal moved to RDU.

"We don't have any way to know exactly how many faculty we will lose as a result of this process until it happens," Bacon answered. He said he was there only to provide facts, not to oppose the move.

Horace Williams 'jewel'

But the physicians were clear on that point. "This is not a trivial matter for us," said Dr. Alan Stiles, chairman of the UNC-CH Department of Pediatrics.

Said Dr. James Loehr, associate professor of pediatrics, "The jewel that makes this work is Horace Williams Airport."

Dr. Ali Calikoglu, associate professor of pediatrics, travels twice a month to Wilmington, serving as many as 25 patients in one day. He leaves Chapel Hill at 7 a.m. and returns at 8 p.m. His schedule in Wilmington is booked through late October.

"The close proximity of Horace Williams is a big advantage," he said. "I may have to close one of those clinics because of this additional inconvenience."

Dr. Marianne Muhlebach, a pediatric lung specialist at UNC-CH, said she would have to leave RDU at 5:30 a.m. to offer the same hours she currently does.

"Given my research responsibilities, I may not be able to keep up with the schedule," she said.

Muhlebach often treats asthma, a disease that disproportionately affects poor children.

"They can't travel to Chapel Hill because they don't have the money," she said. "Those would be the ones that are left behind if we don't come there as frequently."

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