Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board of Control Chairman Glenn Tilson said Friday the board has a process in place that will determine which possible buyer of the hospital best suits the needs of the county and its residents. He said the process will not involve decisions or votes occurring behind closed doors.
Tilson held a news conference at Erwin Town Hall to outline the process the board will use to choose between proposals submitted Wednesday by both Wellmont Health System and Mountain States Health Alliance.
As originally planned, the board will meet in regular session Monday. However, the board will not meet afterward in a closed strategic planning session to discuss the proposals. Tilson said this is because two of the board’s seven members will not be able to attend.
Instead, Tilson said a strategic planning session will be held later to discuss and review the proposals with no vote being made at that time. After this meeting, both proposals will then be made available for public review for at least seven days. The board will then announce a public meeting at which it will vote to accept one of the proposals.
Tilson said he feels UCMH Board of Control Secretary/Treasurer Russell Brackins may have misinterpreted a state law that allows hospitals subject to open meetings laws to hold closed sessions for the development of marketing strategies and strategic plans. Brackins said Thursday that the board would choose between the better of the two proposals in Monday’s strategic planning session, make that proposal available for public review for at least seven days, and look to formally adopt it at a later public meeting.
Tilson also addressed comments made by Wellmont President/CEO Denny DeNarvaez, who said that while her organization did receive the original one-page request for proposal sent out by the board in late July, she said obtaining information to submit a full proposal was difficult and that the proposal originally submitted by Wellmont reflected the information provided. She has also questioned the process used to arrive at the board’s Oct. 4 consideration of MSHA’s proposal and mentioned a possible conflict of interest with Tilson, who is running to become Erwin’s mayor in November, and the board’s RFP that asked that proposals address the construction of a new facility within the town’s limits.
“The CEO of Wellmont Health System has made statements to the media that she is not happy with the process we’re following,” Tilson said. “She does not think it has been fair to her system. But the first time we heard Wellmont was having any problems with this process was when she spoke up at the meeting on Oct. 4 as we were about to vote on the Mountain States Health Alliance proposal.”
At that meeting, the board voted to delay action on MSHA’s proposal after opening the meeting up for public comment. The board also voted to allow health care entities interested in acquiring UCMH to submit proposals until Oct. 11 and vote to accept the best proposal on Oct. 18, but rescheduling that meeting is slated to be discussed Monday.
Tilson said to be fair, the board opened the process for resubmission of proposals, although the move could have jeopardized MSHA’s proposal and was “changing the rules at the last minute.” He also said if the board had been able to share information of the two original proposals, the public would see a “clear difference” in what MSHA and Wellmont were offering and said the Wellmont proposal failed to meet the board’s requests. Both Wellmont and MSHA have submitted revised proposals.
“What we know was a fair process has become a source of frustration for the members of our board,” Tilson said. “We cannot be pressured by anyone to rush this decision or create an opportunity that does not serve the people of Unicoi County and our hospital. We will now take the time to look at both new proposals and, when ready, release them to the public for their review before we bring the matter to a vote in open session.”
Tilson also said he feels there is no conflict of interest on his service of the UCMH board, a board on which he has represented Erwin for several years.
“I think I do not have a conflict,” he said. “The board is composed of three members that are appointed by the town and three members that are appointed by the county and the chief of staff. It’s been that way for many years.”
In a Friday morning conference call, MSHA President/CEO Dennis Vonderfecht called upon Wellmont officials to “cease and desist” with comments regarding the acquisition process and allow the UCMH Board of Control to select the best possible proposal for Unicoi County.
“We implore upon Wellmont to follow the process, same as Mountain States has followed the process, and not try to bully their way into the relationship with Unicoi County Memorial Hospital,” Vonderfecht said.
He said Wellmont had the same initial opportunity and information as MSHA to submit a solid acquisition proposal to address the July 30 RFP sent by the UCMH board to both organizations. MSHA’s first proposal was made available for public review in late September, and Vonderfecht called upon Wellmont to make its first proposal available to the public.
Like Wellmont, MSHA submitted a second proposal at this week’s deadline, which Vonderfecht said was a necessary move.
“Knowing that Wellmont had weeks of access to our original proposal, we figured that they would attempt to better that proposal in some way or fashion, so we had to obviously submit a second proposal as well,” Vonderfecht said.
DeNarvaez said Friday afternoon that Wellmont officials have no intention of releasing the organization’s first proposal, adding that it included Wellmont taking over the hospital and assisting with its debt but it was not to be a final offer.
“Not because we’re worried about it, but because it’s irrelevant,” DeNarvaez said. “We have now put a proposal together that we recognize is more what the Unicoi County board was looking for, and it is our best and final proposal.”
Wellmont’s revised proposal is available for public viewing on its website.
DeNarvaez also said she is sure Vonderfecht would like for her to back off from making comments during the acquisition process, but she said she doesn’t plan to do so.
“We will not back off as long as I’m getting the number of phone calls I am getting from Unicoi County residents and from the people who are saying ‘please keep fighting,’ because we feel we are fighting for them,” DeNarvaez said.