Area hospitals see fewer patients, shorter stays

Robert Houk • Sep 8, 2019 at 6:39 PM

An official with Ballad Health told Washington County commissioners last week the regional provider is embarking on some “exciting investments” in behavioral health services.

Anthony Keck, executive vice president for system innovation and chief population health officer at Ballad, pointed to one such pilot project recently launched in Bristol that he said Thursday was made possible with the merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System.

Keck also told members of the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee that the creation of Ballad has helped to “eliminate wasteful duplication” and allows health care providers to redirect “those resources to rural health and children's services.” 

At a time when many rural hospitals nationwide are closing, Keck said Ballad has been able to open hospitals in Unicoi County and Lee County, Virginia. This is also happening with Ballad seeing less than a 30% occupancy rate for its hospitals.

“That’s not a sustainable model,” he said. “We attribute this to negative population growth in the area.”

The region is expected continue to see a 1% population growth over the next few years.

As a result, Keck said more health care services will be provided outside of hospitals.

“That’s a good thing,” he said, noting such care is less expensive for patients and reduces the risk of infections.

Ballad has seen the length of time that a patient stays in a hospital decrease, and has recorded its lowest rate ever for hospital re-admissions.

Keck said among the drivers for the creation of Ballad are financial stability and to improve the quality of heath care in the region. He said Ballad is working to meet the goals for the merger that were set under the Certificate of Public Advantage in Tennessee and Virginia.

That includes preserving competition, keeping essential services, making capital improvements, keeping costs under control and eliminating restrictions on where physicians can practice. At the same time, Ballad has moved its operating margin from 0.5% to 1.7%.

“That’s razor thin — like a grocery store, but it is a move in the right direction,” Keck said.

While Keck said Ballad has seen many successes in the past year, he said the health care organization still faces the same challenges that other providers must deal with. One of them is a national shortage of available nurses. Another is meeting the growing demand for behavioral health services.

He said as many as 60 people show up daily in area emergency rooms in need of behavioral health care.

Commissioner Suzy Williams said she asked Keck to speak to the committee to help Ballad gets its message out to elected leaders and the community. Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said one way it can do that would be to reinstate the position of a governmental liaison.

He said that position was very helpful for county commissioners and their constituents when it was available during the Mountain States era.

“Having a number for us to refer them to get answers to their questions was a great resource,” Matherly said.

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