Mountain States Health Alliance supporter Jim Long speaks at Thursday's meeting. (Brad Hicks/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN — For the third time, the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board of Control has opted to move forward with allowing Mountain States Health Alliance to acquire the 60-year-old hospital, and MSHA officials and supporters hope this time is a charm.
At a public meeting held Thursday at Unicoi County High School, the seven-member UCMH board unanimously voted to accept the proposal from MSHA to acquire Unicoi County’s financially struggling-community hospital over a proposal from Wellmont Health System.
“We’re obviously very pleased that there was a unanimous vote from all the board members for Mountain States Health Alliance,” MSHA President/CEO Dennis Vonderfecht said following the meeting. “I know it’s been a difficult decision for several, but I think as more facts came out, it became obvious that we had the strongest proposal, and they saw with their own eyes the facilities we built, that we live up to our promises, and I think that ultimately proved to result in this unanimous vote.”
Throughout Thursday’s nearly three-hour meeting, attorneys for the UCMH board provided background on what led to Thursday’s meeting and discussed the proposals, UCMH Interim CEO Jete Edmisson discussed UCMH’s financial status, and members of the public in attendance were given the opportunity to comment on the issue.
Attorney Louis Bissette with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, the legal firm representing the board, said officials realized in early 2012 that things at UCMH were “deteriorating.” He said said the hospital had lost around $2.3 million over the previous nine years. Bissette went on to detail the process that led to the decision by the board to accept MSHA’s offer.
Bissette said on May 14, the sale application was submitted to the state attorney general’s office for its review, which is required under state law and both closing of the transaction can take place. On June 25, the UCMH board announced that the sale had been delayed due to concerns the attorney general’s office had about the process.
According to a letter from the attorney general’s office, these concerns were the UCMH’s failure to obtain the approvals of the town of Erwin and Unicoi County on the sale per the UCMH charter, concerns over how monetary contributions outlined in MSHA’s proposal would be spent, and concerns over the UCMH Board of Control’s failure to comply with the state’s Open Meetings Act during the sale process.
“We’re here today to try to remedy that situation, if that was, in case, the fact,” Bissette said of the attorney general’s concern regarding the Open Meetings Act.
Both entities interested in acquiring UCMH were active earlier this week. On Tuesday, Wellmont announced it had concerns over the legality of the process, declared both its proposal and MSHA’s “null and void,” and called for the process to start over. Wellmont officials also stated that the organization would not be participating in Thursday’s meeting. This announcement came one day after MSHA announced it would be provided an additional $1 million line of credit to UCMH.
While Wellmont officials were absent on Thursday, supporters of the organization did turn out. Among them was county resident Bill Gaines, who has supported a Wellmont acquisition from the beginning. Gaines said it was the UCMH board’s failure to adhere to the law that led to the need for the board to again consider the proposals.
“We wouldn’t be here tonight if you had open meetings,” Gaines said. “I’ve been to all the meetings down there, and the public was not allowed to speak at these meetings. ... We’re here tonight because this board failed in its fiduciary responsibility , and that’s what’s put our hospital in jeopardy.”
Glenn Tilson, who served as chairman of the board until early November, rebutted Gaines’ comments by saying it was a lack of community use of UCMH that led to the need to partner with a health care system. He also said UCMH has a long association with MSHA.
“If people had been using it, we wouldn’t be in this shape today, having to transfer this hospital,” Tilson said.
One hour of the meeting was allotted for public comments, and this entire time was used as supporters of both organizations spoke. Several UCMH employees also commented, with all agreeing that a quick decision was needed from the board. Several also voiced support for a MSHA acquisition.
“MSHA has been supporting us from day one,” UCMH Nursing Home Administrator Patty Gentry said.
“We need to get this taken care of,” UCMH Long Term Care Director Elecia Lonon said. “We need to make sure our people are taken care of.”
Each member of the UCMH board also spoke before casting their votes. Jimmy Erwin, who voted against the MSHA proposal in November, agreed that quick action was needed to resolve the hospital situation. He said the best resolution would be for the board to stick with the MSHA proposal.
“We’ve got to team up with a big brother to make sure we have a hospital here in Unicoi County,” Erwin said.
Board member Sue Jean Wilson, who also initially voted against the MSHA proposal, explained why her vote had changed.
“No one was more disappointed than I was on Tuesday morning when I saw the headline in the paper without any notification whatsoever, but we have our employees and our Long Term Care, and my aunt is on one of those beds and I, too, (Russell Brackins) was born in the old hospital,” she said, “and I vote ‘yes.’ ”
“We cannot delay a decision on this hospital,” Board of Control Chairman Roland Bailey said. “We are out of money. ... There’s no time for delay. Now is the time.”
Vonderfecht said he hopes Thursday’s meeting will satisfy the attorney general’s concerns regarding the Open Meetings Act. MSHA will now wait for the town of Erwin and Unicoi County to consider lending their approval to UCMH’s sale to MSHA, Vonderfecht said. After this, the organization would await word from the attorney general to see if the office’s concerns have been addressed.
Vonderfecht also said he hopes closing of the transaction occurs soon, as UCMH continues to struggle financially.
“I think there has been great effort on the part of the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital Board and their attorneys to make sure that they are trying to follow exactly what the attorney general wanted, and I think this meeting tonight was evidence of that,” Vonderfecht said. “I think everyone that wanted to speak had an opportunity to speak, all the board members had an opportunity to speak, one way or the other, how they felt about it, so I don’t see how anyone could find anything wrong with this.
“Some people may not be happy with the decision, but I think it is was well-vetted and a lot of thought had gone into this before a decision was made.”
Erwin Town Recorder Randy Trivette said the Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen will likely consider approval of UCMH’s sale to MSHA at its meeting Monday. Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the Unicoi County Commission’s consideration will likely take place at its regular Aug. 26 meeting.
Wellmont officials were not present at Thursday’s meeting, but Wellmont spokesman Jim Wozniak did comment on the process Thursday evening.
“We want to certainly, once again, reiterate that we are grateful for the support we have received throughout this process from our supporters in Unicoi County,” he said.