ERWIN - For six decades, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital has operated as a publicly-owned community hospital, but UCMH officials and team leaders agreed that for the hospital to survive, a partnership with a large healthcare organization was necessary.
The next step in UCMH's acquisition by Mountain States Health Alliance could take place this Thursday when the UCMH Board of Control meets to consider adoption of the final acquisition agreement between UCMH and MSHA. The public meeting will begin at 1 p.m. at Erwin Town Hall.
UCMH Director of Radiology and Dietary Food Services Michael Slemp described this partnership as a "welcome solution," as it should bring stability to a facility that has seen its share of financial struggles. Like Slemp, other UCMH officials are hopeful the board of control will move forward on the final agreement.
"Here we are, we're nailing down for the next 60 years that there's going to be a facility here that's supported by a big system," UCMH Interim CEO Jete Edmisson said. "To me, this is the greatest thing that the board could do is make this decision."
In late November, the board of control voted to accept a proposal from MSHA to acquire UCMH over a proposal submitted by Wellmont Health System. Commitments outlined in MSHA's acquisition proposal include the construction of a new acute care facility within the limits of Erwin, and MSHA officials are already eyeing approximately 45 acres of land near the Temple Hill Exit as the possible location for Unicoi County's new hospital.
UCMH Emergency Room Director Larry Dison said he and others realized the hospital could not continue to survive operating independently. As the acquisition process has progressed, Dison said he has come to realize that many smaller, community hospitals must partner with larger healthcare entities, adding that MSHA's previous acquisitions of other community hospitals is comforting. UCMH is set to become the 14th hospital in the MSHA system.
"Anytime you ask for help, it's really good to feel like the people that are offering help know what they're doing," Dison said.
Assuming the board of control approves the final agreement on Thursday, Edmisson said he intends to have the signed agreement and other information submitted to the attorney general's office for review Friday or early next week. According to state law, within 45 days of receiving written notice of a hospital sale, the attorney general will notify the hospital board of its decision to either object to the sale or take no action. This timeframe can be extended if the attorney general's office needs more information on the pending sale.
Edmisson said the longer the review process lasts, the more heavily it may weigh on the members of the community and UCMH staff who want to see the hospital matter resolved. Slemp agreed, saying that UCMH employees are anticipating what the acquisition may bring and are anxious to see a resolution.
"They're excited, but they're like us sitting here. We want to move forward," Slemp said. "If it was completed tomorrow, it would be great news for all of us."
UCMH Environmental Services Director Marilyn Phillips said some at UCMH have had anxiety over the pending acquisition, but she said MSHA's work with UCMH thus far has eased many of these concerns. She said MSHA has already started its orientation procedure with UCMH employees and said she was impressed by MSHA's recent bus tours, in which UCMH employees, county officials and community members were offered the opportunity to get a firsthand look at some of MSHA's recently-constructed hospitals.
"I think they're showing the community this is what you can have and what you will have to take a little bit of the concern away," Phillips said. "It is scary. We've been on our own for a long time, and we know, at this point, that we can no longer do that. There's an anxiety that comes with that, so I think they're trying to help us with that."
Each step forward in the acquisition process has offered those at UCMH a sense of relief, Dison said. He is hopeful this trend continues on Thursday.
"I think, looking back, when the process was first announced to the time time where they initially chose Mountain States, all those things, every time, at every point, it was a relief, OK now we can move forward," Dison said. "So we're ready for that. We're ready for, you might say, some closure and really looking forward to what's next."