ERWIN — Before the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board of Control meets to decide on the better of acquisition proposals from Wellmont Health System and Mountain States Health Alliance, Unicoi County’s leadership wants to give residents a venue to discuss, ask questions and obtain information on the possible transaction.
A community forum will be held Monday beginning at 7 p.m., or immediately following the Unicoi County Commission’s regular 6 p.m. meeting, whichever is later, in the large courtroom at the Unicoi County Courthouse.
The forum is not being conducted by Board of Control, which will set a public meeting to vote on the proposals. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said he wanted to hold the forum since the public has not had many opportunities to ask questions and voice concerns during the acquisition process.
“I think we needed to give this opportunity to the public, and I stress it is not sanctioned by the board of control for the hospital, this is just a community forum,” Lynch said. “We’ve had a couple in the last month or so concerning different things, and this is a very pivotal moment in Unicoi County health care, so I just felt like it was something that we needed to put out there and let the people voice their opinion.
“This is not really just a town of Erwin and Unicoi County Memorial Hospital thing, it’s a Unicoi County thing.”
Both Wellmont and MSHA submitted revised proposals last week to outline what each would offer should it acquire UCMH. Lynch said he hopes that the forum will help “clear the air” on some of the concerns residents have regarding the acquisition and events leading up to it.
“It’s just created something, that I feel like, is kind of spinning out of control, and I hope that through this forum that there will maybe be some people who will speak up and tell what they’ve been hearing,” Lynch said.
Lynch said aside from the public, aldermen from the towns of Unicoi and Erwin, county commissioners, Board of Control members, and Wellmont and MSHA representatives have been invited to attend.
Wellmont spokesman Jim Wozniak said Tuesday that Wellmont representatives plan to be at the forum.
According to a statement issued Tuesday, MSHA President/CEO Dennis Vonderfecht said MSHA is unsure at this point if it will have representatives at the forum.
“MSHA is following the process laid out by the UCMH Board of Control,” Vonderfecht said in the statement. “To date, that process has not included a public hearing conducted by the Unicoi County government. We will consult with the UCMH board, and once we understand their wishes regarding the process, MSHA will decide whether to participate.”
Board of Control member and County Commissioner Sue Jean Wilson said she feels the forum could be beneficial in allowing the public to ask questions and receive answers and information and voice concerns.
“I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “It will give people the opportunity to express how they feel, and I hope officials that are in charge will be there to provide answers.”
Lynch said security will be present at the forum, which will be moderated by former WCYB anchor and news director Steve Hawkins. Lynch said the format will consist of allowing an opportunity for Wellmont and MSHA officials to discuss their respective acquisition proposals, followed by a public question period. After officials have been allowed to respond to questions from the public, Lynch said the forum would then be opened for public comments.
Lynch said he hopes the Board of Control still allows the public to make comments during the meeting at which it will decide between the proposals. He also said he hopes Monday’s forum will ease some concerns residents have on an issue that has divided some in the community.
“I hope that the end result of this will be whatever hospital they choose that the community will be comfortable with it and start using it and, hopefully, we will be able to regain some of the market that’s been lost over the years in health care,” Lynch said.