ABINGDON, VA (WJHL) – Representatives from the Federal Trade Commission were in Abingdon on Wednesday, asking questions about a proposed hospital merger deal.
For months,the FTC has made it clear they think the states of Tennessee and Virginia should not give permission to Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System to merge into a single new company.
The FTC said the merger would create a monopoly that could have a negative impact, a claim the former rival companies deny.
The federal agency in charge of protecting American consumers sent four staff members to Abingdon Wednesday to communicate the agency’s concerns.
This meeting comes the day before the Southwest Virginia Health Authority plans to meet to decide what to recommend to the Virginia Health Commissioner about the merger. The authority must decide in the next two weeks.
“We’re going to be weighing, our goal our job tomorrow is to start weighing the advantages and the disadvantages now if we get through all of it tomorrow I don’t know,” Virginia Delegate Terry Kilgore said. He is the chairman for the Southwest Virginia Health Authority.
As it gets closer to that deadline, FTC is not backing down on their opposition to the merger.
“They tend to look at it only through the lens of competition and of disregarding every other factor that might be involved,” Todd Norris with Wellmont said.
Stephanie Wilkinson, attorney advisor for the FTC said competition between Mountain States and Wellmont has benefited this region, provided lower prices, and improved quality.
“We believe that eliminating this competition would undermine rather than advance the health policy goals that have been articulated by the Southwest Virginia Health Authority,” Wilkinson told News Channel 11.
Mountain States and Wellmont leaders, now say joining forces is their only option.
“There are no viable out of market mergers on the table to be considered,” Norris said.
During the meeting, Kilgore asked if the FTC has looked at the unique challenges of our region.
“Some of our counties, if you lose the hospital you’re driving an hour,” Kilgore said.
FTC staff said they are aware of the local challenges, but it doesn’t make competition any less important.
Another concern, FTC staff said the commitments laid out in the systems’ application to merge are too vague and not enforceable.
“The FTC actually mentioned a lot of things that were pretty hypothetical in their assessment of the merger where as the commitments that we’re making are very clear, we will do them, and they’re very enforceable,” Norris said.
“I’m not sure that they had the most recent set of commitments that we had because we did we spend an entire day going through the commitments and really ramping those commitments up so I think we had already addressed a lot of those concerns,” Kilgore said.
As far as the FTC’s role in if the merger goes through, “They’re going to have a lot of say and a lot of impact moving forward,” Kilgore said.
The Tennessee Department of Health also has to decide on the hospital merger plan.
The final public hearing on the merger in Tennessee is set for November 21st in Johnson City.
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