ERWIN — Unicoi County Memorial Hospital’s Board of Control was set to meet Thursday with officials from Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System in closed-door question-and-answer sessions to get more information on each entity’s proposal to acquire UCMH.
But the board announced early Thursday afternoon that the planned sessions had been canceled. One board member said the move was made so the board could ensure such meetings were covered under the exemption in Tennessee law that allows public hospital boards to hold closed strategic planning sessions.
The board was set to meet with MSHA officials at 3 p.m. and Wellmont officials at 4:30 p.m. to obtain more information on their revised acquisition proposals, which were submitted Oct. 10. According to a notice of the meeting, the board was to immediately enter a strategic planning session for this purpose after calling its scheduled meeting to order.
Tennessee Code Annotated 68-11-238 allows hospitals subject to open meetings laws to hold closed sessions for the development of marketing strategies and strategic plans. But Tennessee Press Association Public Policy Director Frank Gibson said Wednesday that he was of the opinion that the board was misinterpreting the intent of this exemption and that the sessions should be open to the public.
“It’s my opinion that that in no way comes close to the intent of the General Assembly when it approved that strategic planning exemption for public hospitals back in 2008, that they are misinterpreting the law,” Gibson said. “And I think the question they should be asking is whether they are opening themselves up for a legal challenge by doing it this way.”
Board member Jimmy Erwin said due to Gibson’s comments, board Chairman Glenn Tilson wanted to check with attorneys to make sure the sessions would be legally allowed.
Erwin also said in prior discussions with attorneys, he had the understanding that the strategic planning process used by the board in the past was legal, and that the process to be used Thursday was covered legally.
“My philosophy was we needed to go ahead and have the meeting today and continue our process because, right now, myself, and I’m sure every other board member, too, we’re trying to do what’s best for the hospital, for the community, and this is one of the processes we’re working through at this time,” Erwin said. “For other people to come in and try to put more roadblocks in our way isn’t helping the overall situation.”
Board Secretary/Treasurer Russell Brackins said there is no word yet on whether the board plans to reschedule the meetings that had been planned for Thursday.
The board will meet in regular session on Monday in the hospital boardroom, but discussion of the proposals is not on the agenda.
MSHA President/CEO Dennis Vonderfecht responded to the board’s decision to postpone the meetings in a statement issued Thursday afternoon.
“We respect the board’s decision and understand that they have a great responsibility to make the best choice for meeting the health care needs of Unicoi County citizens,” Vonderfecht stated. “We are ready to offer any additional information that might be needed, with the understanding that the UCMH board remains fully in control of the selection process.”
Wellmont President/CEO Denny DeNarvaez also issued a statement in response to the board’s decision.
“Wellmont Health System is excited to share its proposal for the future of Unicoi County,” DeNarvaez stated. “We look to the Board of Control for the next steps in this process. It has been a pleasure to learn more about the community and develop a proposal that will benefit the county well into the future.”