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Ballad Health explains need to conceal certain oversight records

Zach Vance • Updated Feb 9, 2018 at 11:57 PM

After a Johnson City lawmaker filed legislation last week that would conceal certain Ballad Health records from the public record, hospital officials have clarified exactly what the bill would do and why it is needed.

The three-page bill, sponsored by Sen. Rusty Crowe, would mask 14 categories of records Ballad Health is required to share with the Tennessee Department of Health as part of the stringent Certificate of Public Advantage monitoring process.

In addition, all records received or created by the independent entity actually monitoring the conglomerate would also be exempt from the public’s purview under Crowe’s legislation.

Hospital officials believe the legislation is needed to prevent competitors from exploiting those records to gain a competitive edge.

Even with the bill in place, Tim Belisle, general counsel for Ballad Health, said the level of information the company will be releasing is “unprecedented.”

As proof, Ballad Health officials released a 17-page document Thursday listing all records they expect will be made public by the state, but a clear discrepancy existed.

Facility closures were mentioned by Ballad Health as information being made public, but it was also directly spelled out as being shielded in Crowe’s legislation.

“Both are true,” a statement from Ballad Health said. “The approval process is not public but the decision would be. Making discussions with the state public before a decision is made could be disruptive to the ongoing provision of services.”

Belisle said if patients and employees heard Ballad Health was requesting permission to close or repurpose a facility, they might take “unwarranted” action without knowing the full extent of the hospital’s plans.

“If it was announced we were going to do something with a particular service, but we had a plan for how we were going to accommodate patients who would be impacted by that decision, unless the patients knew the whole plan, they might take some steps that would be unwarranted,” Belisle said.

“It’s kind of the same thing with employees ... Those employees might leave when we might actually have a very acceptable alternative for them to move to.”

For example, Belisle said the Virginia Department of Health requires a nine-month notice before any facility is closed or repurposed. If news broke Ballad was requesting a facility closure, Belisle said, “you can bet your bottom dollar over nine months, that service line, or whatever it is, it is going to evaporate.

“The state might come back and say we can’t do what we’ve asked to do. All of a sudden, the public has become aware that we are moving to try to do something, the state says, ‘No, we want you to keep it.’ Well, just by it becoming public, it has effectively executed the plan that we were asking to do,” Belisle said.

“It just doesn’t make a lot of sense for it to become public before the state has made a decision on it.”

The way Crowe’s legislation is written, Belisle said Ballad Health would have the authority to release confidential records if hospital executives believed the documentation was necessary to justify a particular decision.

“We would release our reasons, and to the extent we can, we would support that with appropriate information. Our goal here is not to do anything that will harm the public, or that's going to be hiding the ball,” Belisle said.

“But at the same time, we’ve not turned the company over to the government. So there’s a fine line balance between private business interests and being transparent with the public so the public has confidence in what we’re doing.”

Belisle said the state has been aware of Ballad Health’s attempts to conceal its proprietary information from the public record.

He said the reason Ballad Health is pushing for this legislation retroactively is because no one initially knew how stringent the reporting requirements would be.

Nevertheless, hospital officials say they remain committed to being transparent with the public about its plans.

“We wouldn't have gone into this if we didn't have every confidence that we can live up to what we've obligated ourselves to and do a good job at it,” Belisle said.

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