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Unicoi County residents rally against hospital’s sale decision

Jennifer Sprouse • Dec 13, 2012 at 9:59 PM

ERWIN –– Unicoi Countians who remain upset about the sale of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital to a Johnson City-based hospital chain rallied Thursday night at Unicoi County Intermediate School to launch a petition and compose letters to the state attorney general in an effort to get the sale overturned.

In mid-November the hospital’s Board of Control voted to sell the financially struggling hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance, while many in the community supported a bid from Wellmont Health System to purchase the facility.

Around 55-65 people showed up to the scheduled 6:30 p.m. rally and were met by people holding clipboards of petitions. While the rally was not a Wellmont-sponsored event, many supporters grabbed white-and-blue signs reading “We need a choice. We need Wellmont.”

“We’re here tonight because we only have one more chance and that is to go before the state attorney general. A lot of folks think ... once the board voted on this thing that it’s done,” said Bill Gaines, rally organizer. “Our board voted against about 70 percent or more of the people in Unicoi County. These crowds that have been here have been Wellmont supporters in this county. The people have been cut out of this thing entirely.”

The Public Benefit Hospital Sales and Conveyance Act of 2006 says that the sale of a public hospital must be reviewed by the state’s attorney general and within 45 days of the receipt of written notice of the sale, the attorney general will notify the hospital board of his decision to either object to the transaction or take no action.

Gaines and other organizers held the Thursday night rally hoping to encourage those still in the fight to continue to write personal letters to the state attorney general.

“The attorney general’s position is to look after the people of Unicoi County and protect their interests, to make sure that we’re getting our money’s worth, that nobody’s devalued the hospital, that ... we’re getting at least as good a health care as we had,” he said. “A lot of folks have already written letters and if there are folks here who have not written a letter and feel uncomfortable writing a letter, we’ll be glad to help.”

Gaines said he feels the whole process used in the sale of the hospital has been “arrogant,” and said that with the exception of the public forum held by County Mayor Greg Lynch, that they’ve virtually had no say.

“The board has never had a meeting, has never invited controversy, always kicked us out when they had their strategic planning sessions. That’s why I’m fighting for this and I’m fighting for the county,” Gaines said. “I think a lot of folks are discouraged and they think that ... the powers that be have done it again. We ain’t down yet. Until the attorney general says no, then we’ve still got a chance and I believe that if he is fair about this and considers the wishes and the will of the people and what’s best for the county, that the attorney general will overturn this thing.”

Rally participant and lifelong Unicoi County resident Jessie Shelton shared his concerns over the sale of Unicoi County Memorial to Mountain States.

“They’re (Mountain States) just trying to take over and ... won’t let us have our rights anymore it seems like. I believe it (would) have been better if we would’ve (gone) and had it voted in, instead of just doing what we’re doing,” Shelton said.

Some of his concerns rested mainly on the rumored downsizing from a 48-bed hospital to a 20-bed hospital, instead of expanding to a bigger hospital like Wellmont proposed.

“We need a bigger hospital ... in Unicoi County,” he said. “I hope that Wellmont can get it, but if we don’t, (we’ll) just have to settle for whatever we can get and go on.”

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