Improved communication, according to the council, is necessary “especially in terms of giving notice before major decisions are announced to the public and even offering opportunities for community engagement and buy-in on the front end when possible.”
“We appreciate the work the local advisory committee has undertaken to synthesize public comments and review our annual report, which covers the first 5 months of our merger,” Ballad Health said in a response. “The state has a process in place to follow up on the (council) recommendations and confirm the accuracy of the public comment received. We are very proud of the improvements in quality and access our team members and physicians have made in a short period of time, and we trust that the state's process will demonstrate the continued public benefit of the merger.”
Ballad Health is the result of a merger between Wellmont Health System and Mountain States Health Alliance, and the new system’s COPA was issued on Jan. 31, 2018.
The report was issued following a Feb. 7 public hearing hosted by the council at Northeast State Community College. Between 300-400 people attended, and more than three dozen presented public comments to the council. As of Feb. 11, the council said it had received nearly 200 written comments via mail, email and an online comment form.
Many public comments, the report stated, opposed the proposal to downgrade the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Kingsport’s Holston Valley Medical Center and opposed the downgrade of Holston Valley’s Trauma Center from Level 1 to Level 3 status.
“There is a lot of concern in the community, especially around Ballad’s recently proposed changes,” the report noted. “While Ballad’s annual report was the focus of the public hearing, most of the public comments were related to the proposed changes or other general concerns. It is important to note, however, that we did hear from people after the public hearing who had positive things to say, but who were hesitant to speak up during the public hearing.
“Many of the complaints that members of the (council) are receiving are misdirected either because they are not directly related to the COPA, the law is difficult to understand, or because the roles of the (council), the COPA monitor and the (state) Department of Health need to be clarified.”
The report’s summary of comments also mentioned concerns about increased costs to patients, decrease in staff pay, relocation of staff, long waits at the Holston Valley emergency room, nursing shortages, lack of input from local physicians on the changes, low staff morale, certain insurance plans not being accepted and negative patient experiences.
Ballad Health’s COPA has four focus areas: population health improvement, improving access to health care services, improving health care quality and improving financial stability and performance.
The council’s members include Chairman Doug Varney, former commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services; state Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville; Gary Mayes, director of the Sullivan County Health Department; Dr. Jerry Miller, founder of Holston Medical Group; former Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips; Dr. Brenda White Wright, former CEO of Girls Inc. in Kingsport; Dr. Linda Latimer of East Tennessee State University’s board of trustees; medical administrator and consultant Dan Pohlgeers; and Dr. Karen Shelton, director of the Virginia Department of Health’s Mount Rogers Health District.