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Guest Commentary: Merger helps define region's economic development

Alan Levine, Ballad Health CEO • Mar 18, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Since the beginning of Ballad Health last month, our teams throughout the region have continued to do what they do best — listen to the stories of our neighbors and serve their healthcare needs. Despite that, it is a challenging time for hospitals throughout the nation; more than 80 rural hospitals have closed and in the last few months, three major national mergers of health systems were announced, each one leading to the loss of local identity for hundreds of community hospitals, with decisions about the healthcare in those communities being made from offices far away. So, in the face of these challenges for our nation’s hospitals, it is truly a blessing that locally we have been able to blaze our own path to sustaining our local hospitals, providing for the health of our region and defining our own economic future.

It took enormous community effort to get us to this point. Without the support of countless physicians, team members, local elected officials and business leaders, our local health care landscape would look very different today, and not in a good way. Throughout the nearly four-year process of completing this merger, it was inspiring and encouraging to see our communities engage around the common principle of controlling our region’s own destiny rather than having it dictated to us from somewhere else. Leaders and community members from Wise County, Virginia, to Mountain City, Tennessee, and from Unicoi County, Tennessee, to Hawkins County, Tennessee, to Smyth County, Virginia, and everywhere in between met face to face with us to learn about the challenges, and to understand the options at our disposal. Ultimately, the theme ended up being same: Our best solution would depend upon collaboration and a recognition that our local health systems could be better if we worked together.

The real work of this merger is just beginning, not just for our health system, but also for us as a community that embarked upon this together. Our local leaders have recognized that our historically fragmented approach to healthcare was not doing enough to improve community health, and that each legacy health system’s focus on capturing market share from each other was not helping contain healthcare costs, but actually was contributing to higher costs, while not focusing on the real drivers of poor health. The opportunity that lies ahead is so much more impactful — solving problems, attracting world-class talent, investing in research, and refocusing our limited resources on services the community needs but which have not been available. To be sure, our competition has never really been each other. It has been, and remains, health systems in other communities that have competed with us for talent and services. Now, as a combined system, we have the scale and resources to be a more effective regional competitor with those other large health systems.

The same is true for each of our communities within this wonderful area we call the Tri-Cities. Each of our communities has a unique character, culture and pride. And when you combine all that these communities are and have the potential to be, the greater region is a powerful and attractive competitor for economic growth and sustainability.

Last month, Mark Costa, chairman and CEO of Eastman Chemical Co., said it best when he articulated a vision where collaboration throughout the region would make the Tri-Cities a destination for economic growth. He is right. Ballad Health is an example of what can happen when the region decides to work together. We didn’t play “small ball,” but rather looked ahead at what the potential would be for the region if we executed on the vision of this merger. This could not have happened if our focus was parochial, and if we didn’t consider that what is good for the region is good for all of us. Many regional leaders are working with us to develop plans for the future of health improvement in the region, and the collective wisdom of these community leaders reinforces the idea that, as a region, we have unlimited potential.

Eastman made clear its intent to support regional economic development efforts, and to eschew parochialism. We agree. It is time. Together as a region, we will thrive, and we will be in a position to compete with any region of the country for our economic future. Divided, we will see stagnant population growth, and worse, we will watch as our young people are forced to leave to find work.

Ballad Health is not only your health system, but we are a major contributor to our local economy. We know we have a responsibility to contribute our resources for better education for our kids, increasing our regional competitiveness for economic growth, and becoming an example of how local health system governance is the best way forward for Tennessee’s and Virginia’s communities. We look forward to answering that challenge.

Alan Levine is the executive chairman, president and chief executive officer of Ballad Health.

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