ERWIN — The Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board of Control is still in a holding pattern, awaiting word from its attorneys on how it should address the concerns of the attorney general’s office that have delayed the sale of the community hospital to Mountain States Health Alliance.
The UCMH board met in a regular session Thursday, and the issue of the delay was briefly discussed. Toward the end of the meeting, which was attended by UCMH employees, officials with Wellmont Health System and MSHA and members of the community, board member Jimmy Erwin asked Chairman Roland Bailey to discuss the board’s next steps following Tuesday’s announcement that the hospital’s sale had been delayed.
Bailey said attorneys representing the board are reviewing the concerns spelled out in the letter from the attorney general’s office. He also asked fellow board members to provide him with their availability in the coming weeks so public meetings could be scheduled to discuss the matter.
Following the meeting, Bailey said there is no time frame for how long it may take for the board to address these concerns.
“Right now, our attorneys, as I said, are going to be reviewing and taking consideration of those concerns the attorney general had and, as soon as they have decided the direction, the approach, that we should take, then we will be notified and then, as I said in that meeting, we will get out the proper notices and call a meeting,” he said.
Around $300,000 of a $2 million line of credit previously extended to UCMH by MSHA remains. Although UCMH’s financial status is a concern among board members, Bailey said he believes MSHA will continue to offer its assistance.
“They’ve got a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of effort into this hospital and, I feel, that they will step up and they’ll do what’s necessary to move us forward,” Bailey said.
On Tuesday, the board announced UCMH’s pending sale to MSHA had been delayed due to three concerns the attorney general’s office had about the transaction. According to a letter from the attorney general’s office dated Tuesday and addressed to attorneys representing the board, the office’s concerns include the Board of Control’s failure to comply with provisions of the state’s Open Meetings Act in its selection of the MSHA acquisition proposal, its failure to obtain the approvals of the town of Erwin and Unicoi County on the sale per the UCMH charter, and concerns over how monetary contributions outlined in MSHA’s proposed would be spent.
On Nov. 28, the board voted to approve an acquisition proposal previously submitted by MSHA over a proposal submitted by Wellmont. On March 28, the board voted to approve MSHA’s final definitive agreement to acquire UCMH. According to state law, the acquisition process must be reviewed by the attorney general’s office before it becomes official.
Since late last year, MSHA has been working with UCMH through a management agreement that was effective after the approval of the MSHA proposal. Although this has provided UCMH with resources not typically available to community hospitals, Bailey said there are more resources and services that MSHA can provide only after the transaction closes.
“There’s just a large variety of thing that, if you don’t own something, you don’t want to really put the money into it until you are the sole owner of it,” Bailey said. “ ... It is all about them getting into (UCMH), come in and improve the quailty of services for our hospital and the citizens of Unicoi County. That’s what medical care is all about. That’s what this board has been through is trying to do the best job we possibly can to, number one, get us a new hospital. Our hospital is 60 years old. We’ve also got to improve our medical care.”
In light of the attorney general’s concerns, Bailey said the board is standing by its initial decision to have MSHA acquire its assets, as the health care system better met the acquisition specifications sought by the board. However, news of the delay has given those who supported a UCMH acquisition by Wellmont a renewed sense of optimism.
Unicoi County resident Bill Gaines, who was involved in pro-Wellmont activities prior to the board’s acceptance of the MSHA proposal, said he was not surprised by the attorney general’s concerns. He also said because the town of Erwin and Unicoi County must also approve the sale, county residents should contact local officials to make their opinions known.
“I was optimistic before that this would come back because it had been handled wrong, and it was obvious and blatant for the exact reasons the attorney general sent it back,” Gaines said.
Wellmont official Lee Fish said her organization would wait and see how the board opts to address the attorney general’s concerns before making any moves of its own.
“The administration will watch the board of control carefully to see what their process is and then, once they witness that, they’ll watch to see what the next steps will be and what they’re going to do,” she said.