Ballad plans town halls as CEO promises better communication about NICU, trauma changes

Zach Vance • Updated Jan 26, 2019 at 12:45 AM

Ballad Health leaders plan to conduct quarterly town hall meetings to share the hospital system’s financial results, CEO Alan Levine announced in a video message sent to employees and released to news media Friday.

He also encouraged employees to speak up about issues they have and share those concerns with upper management.

“We will encourage you, beg of you as clinicians who have a responsibility to advocate for patients, if you see something that you do not agree with, please speak up,” he said in the video. “Talk to your supervisors, talk to your department manager, email me. Tell us what you think.

“Give us an opportunity to work with you to address your concerns, and to make sure that we’re making the best possible decision.”

During the 42-minute video message directed at the health care system’s roughly 14,000 employees, Levine also shouldered the blame for misinformation being spread about the hospital system’s proposed trauma and pediatric changes.

“Many things that are being said are not accurate, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “And it’s our fault. It’s my fault that we haven’t done more to educate and communicate to you and the public about what we’re trying to do and why. And that’s going to change.

“In the absence of information from me and from the board about the decisions that we’re making, there are other people who are filling that gap with information that’s not true.”

In November, Ballad Health announced a significant realignment of services, including the consolidation of Holston Valley Medical Center’s Level III neonatal intensive care unit into Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City. The plan also calls for establishing pediatric emergency rooms in Kingsport and Bristol.

Ballad Health also announced its intent to shift Holston Valley Medical Center’s trauma center status from Level I to Level III, a move pre-approved by the Tennessee Department of Health.

Both announcements were met with backlash from skeptics within the community, and apparently within Ballad Health’s own organization.

“It’s certainly fair to criticize me or the board if you don’t agree with the decision. I don’t think it’s fair to attack us personally. I don’t think it’s fair to make assertions about people’s motives without evidence to support those assertions. I have one motive. I live here. I’m going to have to rely on the quality of care in the hospitals in this region. I want it to be the best it can be for me, my wife, my kids and my family. Just like I want you to be able to go home and say that to your (family),” Levine said. 

“Please know I’m saying this on behalf of our board, I’m saying this on my own behalf: We come to work every day for one purpose, and that’s to make sure you can do the best job you can do.

“That does not mean we’re always going to agree. And no, we are not going to tolerate people within our organization saying things about our organization that are not true. We are not going to tolerate people that attack other people in our organization because they don’t agree with decisions. That is not the culture we want.”

Levine did not cite any specific examples nor did he call out anyone out, but he did meticulously explain the reasoning behind his board’s decision to realign Ballad Health’s trauma and pediatric services and pledged to do a better job communicating the reasoning behind future decisions.

He began the video explaining how Northeast Tennessee’s population is stagnant, as the region is experiencing a 7 percent decline in births. That has led to a decline in Ballad’s ratio of admissions, with admissions per 1,000 people projected to decline from 126 to 100 in the next five years.

As Ballad Health’s admissions decline, so will its revenue. Levine called it a change in Ballad’s fundamental business model, something that cannot be ignored.

“Many people who want to be critical of us don’t have the responsibility or accountability to deal with that problem. We can’t ignore it. It’s fundamental to our business. If you do the math, and we lose 25 to 30 percent of our admissions over the next five to seven years, that equates to a loss of about $250 to $270 million loss of revenue per year. That’s a real issue for us,” Levine said.

“None of us, our board, or management team, nor you believe that we can ignore this and just wait for it to be imposed on us. The responsible thing to do is to plan for it and make good decisions along the way.

“Now, it’s incumbent on us to share those decisions with you, explain those decisions and, frankly, engage with you as we make those decisions. And, that’s something I think we can do better and it’s something we will do better. But, all we ask of you is to understand the external challenges and understand the reasons why we’re trying to address those challenges and then work with us to try to address those challenges.”

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