Unicoi County Memorial Hospital and Long Term Care in Erwin, TN. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN — Steps to bring Unicoi County Memorial Hospital into the Mountain States Health Alliance system were under way prior to Tuesday’s announcement that approval of the proposed sale of the community hospital is now on hold.
MSHA Senior Vice President of Tennessee Operations Candace Jennings said Wednesday that since December, MSHA has been working with UCMH under a management agreement. Through this agreement, MSHA has provided financial assistance, education and leadership training, and assistance with hospital equipment.
Around six months ago, MSHA began working to bring financial stability to the hospital, Jennings said. Much of the $2 million line of credit extended to UCMH by MSHA was used to pay past due vendors’ fees so that UCMH could continue to receive supplies from these vendors, Jennings said. She also said MSHA teams were brought in to assess UCMH’s equipment need, and education and training was provided to UCMH’s front-line staff. MSHA has also offered assistance with equipment repair and replacement, as well as equipment leasing, Jennings said.
Temporary staff members were brought in by MSHA to fill vacant nursing positions at UCMH and offer some relief to the hospital’s current nurses, Jennings said. She also said MSHA brought in a consultant to assist UCMH in the implementation of its NextGen Healthcare computer system. She also said plans were in place to bring special physician services, such as cardiology and oncology, to Unicoi County.
Jennings said MSHA officials had hoped that closing of the transaction would have occurred by July 1. Although this is unlikely to occur, Jennings said MSHA will be ready to make UCMH the 14th hospital in the MSHA system after getting the “green light” from the attorney general’s office. Until then, the management agreement between MSHA and UCMH will remain in place, adding that MSHA officials are confident the matter will be resolved.
“We’re more committed than ever,” Jennings said.
On Tuesday, the UCMH Board of Control announced it had received word from the state attorney general’s office that the office’s approval of the proposal sale of UMCH to MSHA had been delayed due to three concerns the attorney general’s office had. A release from the UMCH Board states that the attorney general’s office wanted the sale to be approved by both the town of Erwin and Unicoi County, requested that the UCMH Board hold additional public meetings to discuss its reason for choosing the MSHA acquisition proposal, and wanted assurance that voluntary contributions totaling $1.5 million to the county and town of Erwin would be used only for health care purposes.
A letter from the attorney general’s office dated Tuesday and sent to attorneys representing the UCMH Board of Control stated stated that the office had concluded its preliminary review of documentation provided by the UCMH Board as part of the acquisition process. The letter stated the office had identified several concerns that would prevent the office from taking no action on the proposed sale, which would have led to the transaction’s closing.
According to the letter from the attorney general’s office, these concerns include the UMCH Board of Control’s failure to comply with provisions of the state’s Open Meetings Act in its selection of the MSHA proposal, its failure to obtain the approvals of the town of Erwin and Unicoi County on the sale per the UMCH charter, and concerns over how the the contributions to the municipalities and an unnamed foundation that were part of MSHA’s proposal would be spent.
When asked how long these concerns could delay approval and if the issues were rectifiable, the attorney general’s office stated that it could not respond as it cannot offer “legal advice” in the hospital matter.
Erwin Town Recorder Randy Trivette said Wednesday that the town of Erwin would await advisement from the attorneys representing the UCMH Board of Control to determine what is required of the town.
“Basically, we’re just going to wait until we hear what the attorney general is going to require of the town of Erwin, and then we’ll evaluate that with the board at a meeting and move forward from that,” Trivette said. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said Wednesday that he felt UCMH is worth more than what would be gained through MSHA’s acquisition. Like Trivette, Lynch said the county would wait until it has received more information from the UCMH Board before making any moves.
“We’ll just basically wait for more information from the attorney general and the board and the county attorney, and then we’ll make some decision at that point,” Lynch said.
On Nov. 28, the UCMH Board of Control voted to approve an acquisition proposal submitted by MSHA over a proposal submitted by Wellmont Health System. On March 28, the board voted to approve MSHA’s final definitive agreement to acquire UCMH. The acquisition process must be reviewed by the state attorney general’s office prior to the acquisition becoming official, according to state law.
The UCMH Board of Control was set to meet in a called session today at 5 p.m. to consider the sale of Unicoi County Medical Services assets to MSHA, which was to be followed by the board’s regular meeting at 5:20 p.m. The regular meeting will still be held, but the called session has been canceled.
UCMH Board of Control Chairman Roland Bailey said Wednesday that he has not personally spoken with the attorney general’s office, but has spoken with attorneys representing the UCMH board. He said these attorneys are reviewing the information sent by the attorney general’s office and will subsequently advise the UCMH Board on its next steps.
“Once we make that decision, we can put our action plan into effect,” Bailey said.