Crowe bill would shroud Ballad Health in secrecy

Editorial Board • Feb 12, 2018 at 2:02 PM

For nearly two years, officials with Wellmont Health System and Mountain States Health Alliance have talked about the merger of their two systems in broad generalities. With Ballad Health now a reality, it’s time to talk nuts and bolts.

The public wants and deserves to hear specifics. Alan Levine, Ballad’s CEO, president and executive chairman, got the ball rolling in that direction earlier this month when he said the merged health care system must now work to end costly duplication of services and “reinvest those savings into things that will bring value to the community.”

Levine also said Ballad would keep its word when it comes to promises of improving care in areas that are currently lacking. One such endeavor is creating a pediatric trauma center, which is something this region truly needs.

In obtaining a Certificate of Public Advantage from the state to create Ballad, Wellmont and Mountain States also promised to spend $85 million over a 10-year period on behavioral health and addiction treatment. Again, such a facility is badly needed, given the region’s opioid addiction and methamphetamine scourges.

“The Certificate of Public Advantage has enforceable commitments that we’ve made, and we intend to keep those commitments,” Levine said.

Ballad’s promises to be true to its word sound good, but it would be a hollow gesture unless citizens can see for themselves if such promises are indeed being kept.

What’s needed is the level of transparency Ballad vowed when it requested the COPA. A bill introduced recently by Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, has us questioning Ballad’s commitment to that transparency.

SB 2048 would amend the COPA law (passed by the state General Assembly to facilitate the Wellmont/Mountain States merger) to make “records made or received by an independent firm or individual retained by the state to monitor, review, supervise or otherwise provide oversight” of a COPA agreement exempt from the state’s public records law.

Ballad leaders said Thursday the exemption is necessary to protect the company’s “competitively sensitive” information from other medical providers in such areas as outpatient services and recruitment of medical professionals.

Shelley Walker, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health, told the Johnson City Press that the state will prepare annual reports showing whether the department still considers the merger a public benefit. “These reports will be made public, and if there are shortcomings, those will appear in the reports,” she said.

If Crowe’s bill is approved by the General Assembly, however, citizens of this state would not have access to documents, papers, letters and other materials evaluating how well Ballad complies with the COPA. That means disclosure on operating budgets, strategic plans and facility closings is off the table. Instead, the public will be asked to take the state’s word when it comes to Ballad living up to its promises.

The public should not have to be that trusting. While Ballad officials may have legitimate concerns about losing competitive edge, the state’s oversight role should not be clouded by secrecy. Crowe’s bill is far too broad.

We urge area residents to call Crowe’s office in Nashville at (615) 741-2468 and let him know the bill needs further scrutiny to protect the public’s interests in keeping with the openness Ballad promised when the COPA was created.

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