KINGSPORT — Wellmont Health System's assets need to remain under local governance, a panel of regional power players told a supportive standing-room-only crowd at a Kingsport Higher Education Center forum on Monday night.
BancTenn Corp. Chairman Bill Greene Jr., healthcare consultant Jerry Miller, Kingsport Mayor Dennis Phillips and East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland talked about the implications of Wellmont's plan announced earlier this year to seek a business partner.
"It's not likely we come out of this meeting today with a lot of finite answers. ...These are complex issues," said forum host Ken Maness, a retired radio executive and former Kingsport alderman.
Maness noted both Wellmont and Johnson City-based Mountain States Health Alliance have been "slugging it out" for the past 15 years in a competition that hasn't included pricing. Both are not-for-profit systems serving Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
An e-mail authored by Phillips and distributed to the business community last week talked about "three options for Wellmont" — remaining independent, an option Wellmont's board does not think is viable; merging with Mountain States to become a $2 billion system; or merging with or selling to an out-of-area system.
While Maness noted Wellmont's board can't talk about these scenarios due to non-disclosure commitments, a region of about 850,000 patients hangs in the balance.
"The political spin is 'We're for sale,'" said Greene, who has been advocating a Wellmont-Mountain States merger. "It's amazing the number of people who missed that and didn't know what it meant. ... What's best for Wellmont might not be good for the region. ...The most important reason we're here is governance."
One bad scenario, Maness indicated, is the region might still be left with two healthcare systems, but with one of them operating out of Atlanta or Charlotte.
Noland pointed out partnerships with the two healthcare systems has helped turn out nurses at ETSU's College of Nursing and primary care physicians at ETSU's Quillen College of Medicine.
"We exist for one reason and that is to serve the people of this region," Noland told the crowd. "...We do it through our healthcare system, ... and we do it with our partners. Wellmont and Mountain States provide residency positions, and residencies are the lifeblood of the College of Medicine."
Noland disclosed ETSU is losing 50 resident positions over the next few years because of the competition between the two systems.
Miller, the founder of Kingsport physician practice Holston Medical Group, talked about the region's healthcare challenges: An aging population, plus financial problems in other health systems.
"Eighty five percent of hospitals are smaller than Wellmont," Miller said. "So why are we throwing in the towel? I don't understand that."
Miller called the Wellmont-Mountain States competition a "malignancy." He first advocated a partnership between the Quillen College of Medicine, Mountain States and Wellmont. His second option was one healthcare system for the region, while his option three was to keep Wellmont running.
Kingsport attorney Bruce Shine was called on to examine if a Wellmont-Mountain States partnership would get a thumbs-up from the Tennessee attorney general's office.
"There is a keen interest to make sure competition is not decreased," Shine said. "It speaks to competition in the context of quality."
After a review, Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper could issue a so-called "certificate of public advantage" allowing hospitals to hook up locally, Shine said.
In closing, Greene encouraged the crowd to get more involved in Wellmont's decision, which is expected sometime before the end of the year.
"The only offensive weapon we have is you the public," Greene concluded.
In a statement issued after the forum, Wellmont said: "Representatives of Wellmont attended (the forum) and our board will study the information. We did not want to risk an atmosphere of debate at the meeting, which is why our board and management team were not in attendance."