Vonderfecht details acquisition process for Unicoi County Memorial Hospital

Brad Hicks • Feb 28, 2013 at 10:21 PM

ERWIN — Unicoi County Memorial Hospital is set to become the 14th hospital in the Mountain States Health Alliance system, and MSHA President/CEO Dennis Vonderfecht was in Unicoi County on Thursday to provide some information on MSHA and where his organization’s pending acquisition of UCMH stands.

Vonderfecht, who spoke at the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce’s quarterly luncheon, said MSHA and the UCMH Board of Control are getting close to finalizing the transaction’s definitive agreement. Once finalized, the Board of Control will vote on accepting the agreement in a public meeting, Vonderfecht said.

Once the board votes to accept the agreement, the signed document will be sent to the attorney general’s office for its review. Vonderfecht said the attorney general is not tasked with making a decision on the transaction but will review the board’s decision to move forward with MSHA. The attorney general’s office will look primarily at two items — if a fair price was paid by MSHA to acquire UCMH and if the process that led to MSHA’s acquisition was followed from a legal standpoint.

“They’re not going to interject themselves to say ‘It should have gone this way’ or ‘It should have gone this way,’ ” Vonderfecht said. “That’s really for the local Board of Control to make that decision.”

In late November, the UCMH board voted to move forward with MSHA’s acquisition proposal over one submitted by Wellmont Health System. Commitments outlined in MSHA’s acquisition proposal include the construction of a new acute care facility with the limits of Erwin, assumption of all of UCMH’s debt and financial obligations, voluntary contributions of $750,000 each to Unicoi County and the town of Erwin and a $1 million contribution to a foundation to enhance health care services within the county.

Vonderfecht said Thursday that hospital officials anticipate the attorney general’s office will complete its review in the spring. From the time the review is complete to the fall of this year, MSHA will begin its strategic planning process for the new UCMH. Vonderfecht said this process will involve the community and will be used to identify the size, required number of beds and services for the new hospital.

“One thing we do not do, as you’ve probably already picked up, we don’t put a cookie-cutter approach to a hospital,” he said. “We could put one in there really quick, but we don’t think that’s what our communities want. We involve our communities, helping identify what the services (are) that are needed, then designing the facility around those services.”

From the fall to the spring of 2014, MSHA will prepare and submit to the state the Certificate of Need to replace UCMH. Vonderfecht said this submission will also be reviewed by the state.

“We do not anticipate there would be any issues with that because, certainly, there’s a very good case to be made for replacing Unicoi County Memorial Hospital,” he said.

The next step, Vonderfecht said, is to select the architect and construction firm, complete the design drawings for the new facility and complete pre-construction work.

He said at this point, MSHA officials anticipate construction on the new facility will begin around July 2015 and the new hospital may be ready around February 2017.

Vonderfecht said MSHA is committed to having 20 licensed beds in its new UCMH facility. While he said the exact number of beds needed will be identified in the strategic planning process, as has been the case with other MSHA hospitals, the new UCMH will be constructed to leave room for expansion of beds and services if needed.

“If it’s 20, if it’s 25, whatever it is, if more are needed, we’re going to design this hospital to build more beds onto it,” Vonderfecht said.

During the process, MSHA must also finalize its purchase of property for the new hospital, Vonderfecht said. He said hospital officials have set their sights on around 45 acres of land located just south of the Holiday Inn Express and Valero service station off the Temple Hill Exit of Interstate 26.

Vonderfecht said this location will not only be convenient for county residents, but the hospital could attract users from the nearby North Carolina market due to its location along the interstate.

“We think that will be very convenient, obviously to the town of Erwin, but particularly to south Unicoi County, which I think would be very important,” Vonderfecht said. “It’s kind of isolated at times in south Unicoi County. The quicker you can get to a hospital, obviously, the more important.”

Until MSHA’s new UCMH is ready, the current hospital must continue to be operational, and Vonderfecht said MSHA will continue to invest in the facility until the new hospital is ready.

On Wednesday, Vonderfecht announced that he will be retiring at the end of 2013. He said this will have no impact on the UCMH acquisition process, as the MSHA board of directors remains committed to seeing that the transaction occurs.

“Our commitment is also in the agreement,” Vonderfecht said. “It’s a legal document, obviously, we have to be held to it. We are, as you can see, the type of organization that follows through on what we’ve committed to.”

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