Majority of letters, emails to state raise concerns about hospital merger

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL) – More than 80% of all written public comments submitted to the Tennessee Department of Health since February raise concerns about the proposed Mountain States Health Alliance-Wellmont Health System merger. At our request, the state agency provided us with all documented public comments received after the two health systems formally filed their application.

The dozens of emails and letters (roughly half of them anonymous) either completely oppose the merger or at the least, raise red flags.

Helen Wright of Johnson City actually signed her name. The 66-year-old retired teacher has sent two emails in recent months.

“I’ve always been opinionated,” Wright said.

Wright has heart disease, kidney disease and is diabetic. She says she’s afraid of what one combined health system will mean for her access to specialty care.

“People like me there will be an impact on,” she said. “Doctors are going to be overworked, overloaded with patients. I don’t think it’s going to be better for the long run.”

Wellmont and MSHA officials say they want to hear directly from anyone with concerns so they can clarify any misinformation.

“For someone like Ms. Wright, we really want to allay those fears and assure her that this will be an environment that will improve quality, improve access, decrease cost,” Wellmont Senior Vice President of System Advancement Todd Norris said. “These are our patients. They’re people we care about deeply. We don’t want them to be concerned or fearful. We want them to understand the absolute benefit that’s here for them individually. Our motivations are to create an atmosphere that creates higher quality, lower cost for the patients that we serve, that improves access rather than diminishes it.”

Among the others who’ve raised concerns with the state is Appalachian Orthopaedics CEO Craig Turner, who also spoke at a public hearing earlier this month. He says his group doesn’t oppose the merger, but does want to make sure every safeguard is in place to ensure physicians can continue to grow their business to meet the needs of patients without the new health system standing in the way. He’s suggested the state scrap its Certificate of Need process, or at the least “limit the ability of the merged entity to oppose CON applications.”

“We’re absolutely committed to doing everything we can to make sure that not only are the health systems advanced, but the physicians, the physicians that are both independent and employed, are put in a position to thrive,” Norris said. “If we can’t all thrive together then we will not be able to serve the region the way that we need to serve it.”

Despite the dozens of letters of concern, and in some cases flat out opposition since February, Norris says the health systems think the public overwhelmingly supports the merger. They reference the 60 letters of support from area businesses, agencies and health officials provided to the state prior to February and the majority of comments at the public hearings since then.

“In totality, the public comments have been extremely positive and very supportive of the merger,” Norris said. “The community as a whole really embraces the idea that this is really in the best interest of our region.”

Insurance groups and the Federal Trade Commission are among the others that have formally voiced concerns about the merger.

“We actually hear concerns expressed more than opposition expressed,” Norris said.

The Tennessee Department of Health plans on holding at least one more public hearing in the near future. In the meantime, the health systems are urging people to take a close look at their Certificate Of Public Advantage application.

“The commitments that we ultimately agree to with the states will be enforceable and there will be consequences if we don’t achieve them,” Norris said.

People in Virginia will be able weigh-in at some point too. The public comment period there has not yet started. The Southwest Virginia Health Authority is still reviewing the merger documents and requesting additional information before deeming the application complete.

Copyright WJHL 2016. All rights reserved.

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