ERWIN — Unicoi County resident Bill Gaines said that many residents in Unicoi County “want a choice” when it comes to health care in the area. He said a decision by the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board of Control to accept Wellmont Health System’s proposal to acquire UCMH would give people that choice. Unicoi County resident Jean Bergendahl said she sides with Mountain States Health Alliance on the acquisition, primarily due to its commitment to construct a new facility in Erwin.
They were among citizens who voiced their opinions on the acquisition proposals at an informational community forum Monday evening. Both Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance submitted revised proposals to the UCMH board Oct. 10 in an effort to acquire the financially struggling community hospital.
“This is a decision that the board has to make that has long-range implications for Unicoi County,” Gaines said. “In my opinion, it’s one of the best economic development opportunities we’ve had in a long time.”
“We really need a hospital here in Erwin so we can better serve the needs of the entire county,” Bergendahl said.
Her husband, Mick Bergendahl, said he feels both health care entities are capable of meeting the needs of Unicoi County residents and hopes the UCMH board accepts the proposal that is in the best interest of the county’s citizens. However, he said the convenience MSHA ownership may provide does play a factor.
“If I ever have to be transported, I’d rather go 15 miles than 30 miles,” he said.
Monday’s forum opened with each health care entity discussing their respective acquisition proposals. Wellmont President/CEO Denny DeNarvaez opened the forum and said Wellmont represents the best partner for UCMH to ensure long-term sustainability of health care in Unicoi County. She also said Wellmont has no assets in the area and would not be competing with another facility under its umbrella.
“The reason we would like to be with you is because we do believe it’s time for a choice,” DeNarvaez said.
In its acquisition proposal, Wellmont has committed to keeping all 48 of UCMH’s licensed beds between Erwin and its new facility to be located in Unicoi County at a not-yet-determined location. DeNarvaez said Wellmont would immediately bring cardiology, pulmonary and oncology services to Unicoi County.
“One of the things that has been most concerning or alarming to us is Unicoi County got into this position to begin with because, quite frankly, you would’ve hoped that at this point they would’ve seen some partnership and recruitment of physicians to the area. The fact of the matter is this has not happened, and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
However, MSHA President/CEO Dennis Vonderfecht said his organization has the support of county physicians because of this long-standing relationship.
“The bottom line is physicians trust Mountain States. Your physicians trust Mountain States Health Alliance,” Vonderfecht said.
Vonderfecht pointed out the recent recognitions MSHA has received and said MSHA facilities see a significant number of Unicoi County residents for inpatient and outpatient care. He said patient satisfaction ratings among county residents who seek care at MSHA is high.
“When we hear there’s no choice, there’s a choice,” he said. “I think the choice has been made by the residents of Unicoi County. The choice is Mountain States Health Alliance, and I think that’s been demonstrated by feet on the ground.”
Vonderfecht also said if Wellmont is granted ownership of UCMH, it would mean that Unicoi County residents would have to travel to Kingsport, Bristol or further for high-level health care needs.
DeNarvaez said Wellmont would also enhance existing services in Unicoi County, as it has commitments from physicians and specialists in Johnson City seeking an area alternative to MSHA.
Wellmont has further said it will assume UCMH’s full debt and financial obligations at the time of the transaction’s closing, will retain current UCMH staff, will provide voluntary contributions of $600,000 each to the town of Erwin and Unicoi County and will provide an unlimited line of credit to sustain operations at UCMH through the closing.
“We’re very familiar with the fact that, unfortunately, Unicoi County finds itself in a very dire strait financially, so it’s very important not to put a cap on that line of credit because we frankly don’t know what is ahead of us,” DeNarvaez said.
DeNarvaez said Wellmont will form a planning task force which will help determine the best location for a new facility in Unicoi County. She said a new Wellmont facility would be constructed within Unicoi County within three years of its UCMH ownership.
She also said the competition Wellmont could provide would lead to better patient experiences in the area.
MSHA has also proposed to assume UCMH’s debt and financial obligations, has committed to voluntary contributions of $750,000 each to the town of Erwin and Unicoi County, will retain current UCMH staff, will issue a $2 million line of credit and will provide a $1 million contribution to go toward a foundation to enhance health care services for Unicoi County residents. Vonderfecht also said MSHA will construct a new acute care facility within the limits of Erwin and will look to enhance services locally, as it has in other areas in which it has acquired hospitals.
“Erwin is the center of the population density,” Vonderfecht said. “That’s where the hospital needs to be located.”
In response to a question from someone in attendance, Vonderfecht said MSHA will undertake a strategic planning study to determine the number of beds to be located in its Unicoi County facility, adding that MSHA will guarantee at least 20 beds in this facility.
“When we build a hospital, we build a very nice hospital,” he said.
The UCMH Board of Control will meet tonight and will look to formally release the acquisition proposals from Wellmont and MSHA available for public review. The proposals must be available for public review for a minimum of seven days prior to the board’s vote to accept one. The meeting at which the board will consider the proposals has not yet been set.