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Wellmont pitches partnership to Unicoi hospital officials

JIM WOZNIAK • Apr 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

ERWIN — A Wellmont Health System executive on Friday touted his company’s history with community hospitals, saying the conglomerate would be a good fit to partner with Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

“We want to get a chance to talk to folks, and we stand on our track record of reinvesting in the communities that we’re fortunate enough to serve,” said Patrick Kane, senior vice president of marketing and communications. “We believe that there’s an opportunity here to improve health care in Unicoi County.”

Wellmont, owner of Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport and Bristol Regional Medical Center among others, has proposed buying 50.1 percent to 90 percent of UCMH and building a new hospital, most likely in Unicoi.

The possibility is now in the hands of the UCMH Board of Control, which met in a special session at Town Hall Friday to hear about the proposal and get community feedback. The audience spilled into the hallway.

Wellmont believes it can increase the number of discharges at UCMH from 1,000 to 4,000 to 5,000 per year and create 150 to 200 jobs.

In a news release issued Friday, Mountain States Health Alliance, Wellmont’s main competitor, called the projected increase in patients an “illusion,” saying only 3,400 Unicoi Countians were admitted to all regional hospitals last year. MSHA also contended the estimated number of jobs that might be generated was “baseless.”

If UCMH wants to explore a partnership, board Chairman Todd Love has said other suitors should be considered as well. But one audience member warned against aligning with MSHA, saying the organization “has gotten too big for its britches.”

For his part, Kane talked about Wellmont’s connection to places similar in size to Unicoi County.

“We have a track record of making community hospitals bigger and investing in them — new operating rooms, new emergency departments, new intensive care units, like out in Rogersville, a complete remodeling like up in Jenkins, Kentucky. And that’s what we want to do down here.”

Kane said he did not have a lot of details on Wellmont’s proposal for UCMH, saying that would be developed as negotiations proceeded. Whether negotiations even will take place is unknown because the hospital board has not decided whether it wants to enter a partnership. The board is expected to discuss the matter further at its regular meeting on April 21.

Board member Roland Bailey suggested UCMH retain a consultant to help decide what its best course would be. He had a host of concerns that would need to be resolved, such as the hospital’s location, size and services and the fate of UCMH employees.

“I just feel very passionate about the hospital,” Bailey said.

Some hospital board members were still smarting Friday that the mayors of Erwin, Unicoi County and Unicoi met with Wellmont representatives last week instead of them. Jim Pate, UCMH’s chief executive officer, said Friday that he learned about the meeting 2½ weeks ago and notified the board. Pate said he told Erwin Mayor Brushy Lewis that Wellmont should get in contact with UCMH.

Kane said Wellmont meant no disrespect to the hospital board in the way the company first presented its proposal. Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch apologized to board member Ulis Miller “if we offended you.” Lewis, who opposes the hospital being moved out of town, said the mayors made it clear to Wellmont that the meeting would be only a fact-finding mission.

“I think they talked to us just to get the idea out to us and possibly to the community and see if we would approach the board with it,” said County Mayor Greg Lynch. He said people with whom he has spoken said UCMH should talk to Wellmont.

Erwin resident Jim Buchanan, who was in the audience, spoke up and suggested the board go that route.

Board members and those in the audience were curious about the future of the long-term care unit attached to the hospital, and Pate said that was not addressed in Wellmont’s proposal. Many people expressed a desire to see the facility continue in operation.

Erwin resident Bill Hensley asked whether UCMH was in financial trouble and needed to sell. Pate said the board did not need to sell or it already would have been asking for proposals.

Businessman Jerry O’Connor wondered whether some of the money from the sale could be used to pay for school needs. Unicoi County education officials want to build a new middle school, but Pate said it would not be possible for any of the money to be spent on schools, but rather be retained by the hospital corporation that oversees UCMH and used for construction of the new hospital.

“I don’t think that money would be coming to the city and the county,” Pate said. “That would be going to the not-for-profit corporation.”

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