A year into the health systems merger that produced Ballad Health, community members got their say at a public hearing at Northeast State Community College’s Center for the Arts on Thursday night.
Of the dozens of speakers representing communities across northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, none of them spoke positively of the merger.
The purpose of the meeting is to review the effectiveness of the merger’s Certificate of Public Advantage, which is a document issued in the case of a merger to assure the public’s interests are protected.
Speakers addressed members of the COPA local advisory council, who will be taking public comment and concern into consideration while assessing if the COPA is effective for an annual report.
Dozens of speakers insisted that the merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System has disadvantaged the region.
The focus of most comments lingered on two recent announcements that have stirred controversy: The decision to downgrade Holston Valley Medical Center from a level one trauma center, and the decision to close Holston Valley Medical Center’s NICU unit.
Personal stories poured in over the nearly three-hour meeting from patients who had suffered serious car crashes, heart attacks and strokes. For these patients, many of whom live in rural areas, Johnson City Medical Center could be hours away.
All of those stories ended with, “Would I be alive today if I had to go to Johnson City for care?”
A grandfather, Gary Frady, said the staff at Holston Valley Medical Center saved the life of his granddaughter, who was born at 12 weeks early with underdeveloped lungs and eyes that were still fused shut.
“For three months, the doctors and nurses of Holston Valley NICU did what no one else on God’s green earth could do,” he said. “They kept her alive. Because of their extraordinary efforts, they ultimately gave her a chance at life.
I believe with all my heart that had Ballad Health’s proposed plan to transport at-risk babies to Johnson City had been in effect at the time of her premature birth, she would not have survived the additional transport time required to get her (to) Niswonger hospital.”
In addition to access to care, concerns with staff salaries took the spotlight for the evening as healthcare workers came to the stand to voice concerns about pay. One retired nurse, Luann Walker, worked at Holston Valley for 38 years.
She said competing health systems offered competitive wages for nurses and other hospital staff, but the merger nixed that competition. She said stagnant wages will follow, which could drain the regional economy.
“Our children and grandchildren will not want to stay in this area,” she said.
Others brought their bills to the podium.
Teresa Allgood, who lives in Kingsport, has to get infusions every three to four months due to lupus. Before the merger, she received treatment that would be billed to her insurance at about $3,500 per treatment.
After the merger, she said Ballad wouldn’t provide her old treatment anymore, and she is forced to opt for a different medicine – a bill that comes to more than $13,000 every time she has to get treated.
That means her insurance is billed almost three times as much for treatment as it was before the merger.
Allgood isn’t sure how much of that will be coming out of her pocket yet.
“There’s no competition in this area – I have nowhere else to go to get this treatment,” she said. “It’s not that (the medicine) is not available, it’s that Ballad has chosen to no longer use that particular medication because it is a less expensive medication . . . they’re making a lot more money for every infusion.”
Jeff Ockerman, director of health planning for the state health department, said he was happy to see interest and passion from the community.
He added that there were some “interesting” issues brought up throughout the evening, like insurance and salary problems.
“(Those issues) were fairly new to me, we had heard some before, but this was really good and interesting information,” Ockerman said.
Ockerman said the next steps will be for the advisory council to assess the effectiveness of the COPA, and decisions on any action will be taken from there. The report will be ready in about a month, Ockerman said.
Public comments can be submitted through Feb. 11 by emailing COPA.Advisory-Council@tn.gov or by mail:
TN Department of Health – COPA LAC
710 James Robertson Parkway, 5th Floor
Nashville, TN 37243