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Moody’s upgrades Ballad Health credit rating

JOHNSON CITY — Moody’s Investor Services has announced it has upgraded the credit rating for Ballad Health to A3 from Baa1, the highest rating experienced by Ballad Health or its predecessor organizations by Moody’s.

This upgrade follows a recent report by Fitch Credit Ratings affirming Ballad Health’s “A” rating.

“Ballad Health’s governance considerations continue to be favorable with a tenured management team,” Moody’s stated. “The board is reflective of the community and has diverse competencies.”

Moody’s cited strong governance as a consideration under its Environmental, Social and Governance framework for consideration in credit ratings.

Moody’s added: “Management has demonstrated the ability to operate effectively within the limits of regulation … and continues to demonstrate the value created by the merger for the service area …”

Citing ongoing challenges for not-for-profit hospitals, which face uncertainty with patient volumes and revenue due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Moody’s pointed to continued population decline as a risk in the Ballad Health service area, in addition to the increased shift of payer mix from commercial to Medicare, Medicaid and other governmental payers. Ballad Health’s inpatient payer mix has less than 20% of inpatients having commercial health insurance.

Moody’s did attribute part of Ballad Health’s volume decline to a “decrease in readmission rates as quality metrics improve and care shifts to outpatient and lower cost settings.” Ballad Health has publicly reported its efforts to reduce lower-acuity admissions and readmissions and divert patients to lower-cost sites for care as part of its quality improvement initiatives, in addition to improving 13 out of 17 agreed-upon quality measures since its inception in 2018.

“Ballad Health has remained focused on delivering high-quality care, reducing the cost of healthcare and being good stewards of our resources,” said Ballad Health Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine. “We are pleased Moody’s cited our improved quality and lower cost of care, because it demonstrates that our strategy of reducing unnecessary duplication, investing in needed services and using our scale and resources to expand access can work. Already, we know that we have reduced the cost of health care by more than $200 million annually, which benefits our employers, patients and taxpayers.

“While the majority of credit ratings changes for health systems in the United States have been negative and downgrades during the last year, we are proud that against the backdrop of a negative outlook for the industry, Ballad Health has emerged with the highest credit rating it or its predecessor organizations have ever had. To accomplish this even in the middle of a global pandemic is certainly unusual and rare, but it underscores the effectiveness of our focus on execution of our plan.

“It is our understanding that in the year since March 1, 2020, Moody’s has upgraded only five health systems, while downgrading more than five times that many. So this action is truly remarkable for Ballad Health and for our communities.”

“This upgrade to an A3 is historic for Ballad Health and its predecessor organizations, as none had ever had an “A” rating from Moody’s,” said Ballad Health’s lead independent member of the board of directors, David Lester. “As we celebrate this milestone, our board also recognizes that Ballad Health has reduced the cost of health care, been effective stewards of our financial resources, has dramatically improved access to care and measurably improved quality. All these things combined are good news for the people we are entrusted to serve.”

More information about Ballad Health is available at www.balladhealth.org.

West Gate project is almost three months in on earth work

Work has been ongoing since early January at the new $18 million West Gate residential development near the intersection of Interstate 26 and Stone Drive.

The development is on the old Stonegate Plaza shopping center site — 18 years ago a Walmart location.

Local developer Danny Karst; his wife, Carla; and Kingsport attorney Todd East are planning to build 76 single- family houses and 16 townhomes on the 14-acre site.

Karst said earlier this week that after utilities and the road bed are in place, a plat will be presented to the city in late April or early May. He said when it is approved, construction could start soon thereafter.

Karst said the site lends itself to work even during rainy and wet times, with the earth work mostly by Glass Construction only being halted about seven days since early January.

Karst said the project is to be completed in three phases, and the developers hope it will be finished in about 27 months.

The townhomes will be priced in the $160,000 range and single-family houses in the $215,000 to $225,000 range.

A tax incentive called tax increment financing (TIF) is helping with $1.2 million for the project, to be repaid over 15 years.

The Kingsport Housing and Redevelopment Authority will take the projected growth in property taxes on the development and use that money to secure a loan. That loan is then granted to the property owner, with the proceeds helping offset the cost of the project.

COVID-19 in SWVA: LENOWISCO district daily cases at 17

The LENOWISCO Health District’s daily number of new COVID-19 infections reached 17, according to Thursday’s state data report, with more than 750 residents vaccinated.

The Virginia Department of Health (www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus) said the LENOWISCO district reported 17 COVID-19-related cases and no deaths for totals of 7,309 and 194 deaths during the pandemic.

Wise County had four cases for 2,988 and 92 deaths.

Scott County saw nine cases for 1,703 and 51 deaths.

Lee County had two cases for 2,365 cases and 45 deaths.

Norton saw two cases for 253 and six deaths.

In the LENOWISCO district, 35,557 doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given since they became available in Virginia — 754 new vaccinations since Wednesday’s VDH report.

The number of people in the district receiving the recommended two doses is 12,917 — 14.94% of the district’s population of 86,471.

Statewide, 2,565,265 doses have been given and 1,375,802 people have received two doses — 16.1% of 8.63 million state residents fully vaccinated.

VDH reported 1,825 new cases and 16 deaths statewide in the prior 24 hours, for a pandemic total of 620,801 cases and 10,268 deaths.

The seven-day average rate of positive PCR test results in the LENOWISCO district in Thursday’s report rose from 5.2% to 5.9%. The statewide seven-day positivity rate rose from 5.8% to 6.1%.

Red Onion State Prison remained at 61 inmate cases and no staff/contractor infections, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap remained at 20 inmate cases and one active staff/contractor case.

Wise Correctional Center near Coeburn remained at 24 inmate cases and no active staff/contractor cases.


To preregister for COVID-19 vaccinations, go online to vaccinate.virginia.gov or call the VDH pre-registration call center at (877) VAX-IN-VA (829-4682)

Contact numbers for the local health districts are:

• Lee County (Jonesville) — (276) 346-2011.

• Scott County (Gate City) — (276) 386-1312.

• Wise County and Norton (Wise) — (276) 328-8000.

Where to be tested

Do you think you might have COVID-19? Local health departments provide free testing.

The LENOWISCO Health Department, which covers Norton and Lee, Wise and Scott counties, posts regular updates on testing sites across the district and offers free COVID-19 tests at its county offices.

Those seeking a test must call in advance for an appointment.

Contact numbers for the county offices are:

• Lee County (Jonesville) — (276) 346-2011.

• Scott County (Gate City) — (276) 386-1312.

• Wise County and Norton (Wise) — (276) 328-8000.

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GOP lawmakers push referendums to amend state Constitution

The Tennessee General Assembly is moving closer to putting a referendum on the state’s 2022 gubernatorial ballot to specifically include the “Right to Work” law in the Tennessee Constitution.

The state Senate voted last month to approve a resolution sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, to allow voters statewide to amend the constitution when they go to the polls to elect a governor next year.

“This amendment will guarantee future generations of Tennessee workers their right to work regardless of whether they choose to join a union,” Kelsey said in describing his support for the measure.

The process to amend the state’s Constitution began in the last session of the Republican-controlled state Legislature. It must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the current 112th General Assembly before it can be placed on the next statewide general ballot.

The joint resolution on the constitutional referendum was passed in the Senate on March 8 by a tally of 23 to 7, with all of the chamber’s Democrats voting in opposition. The Right to Work referendum is awaiting action in the state House.

Tennessee is among 27 states with a law that says workers cannot be hired or fired “based on their membership in, affiliation with, resignation from or refusal to join or affiliate with any labor union or employee organization.”

It has been a key part of labor policy in Tennessee since 1947.

Even so, Republican lawmakers believe the provision should be enshrined in the state Constitution.

“Adding this language to our state constitution sends a message very loud and clear that Tennesseans want to make their own choices in the workplace,” state Rep. John Holsclaw, R-Elizabethton, said in a news release late last year.

Tennessee AFL-CIO President Billy Dycus said he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the state Senate’s vote in March to pass the constitutional referendum on Right to Work.

Dycus issued a statement saying senators who voted for the measure were “setting a dangerous precedent of amending the Tennessee Constitution to cater to a political agenda.”

He also noted that “the Republican supermajority made its priorities abundantly clear once again — it is pro-business and anti-worker.”

Dycus told the Press in November that he estimates “90% of Tennesseans do not understand the Right to Work law,” or are aware that Tennessee is an “at-will” employment state.

“By law, if you don’t belong to the union, but you get into trouble at a company represented by the union, I still have to defend you,” Dycus said.

The Right to Work provision is not the only constitutional amendment Republicans hope to place on the November 2022 ballot.

The state Senate voted in March to approve a referendum on a measure to give the General Assembly the power under the state Constitution to reject the Tennessee Supreme Court’s nominee for state attorney general.

Tennessee is the only state in the nation where its attorney general position is filled by the Supreme Court.

Congresswoman Diana Harshbarger visited HolstonConnect’s Network Operation Center last week to learn more about how the company had brought broadband to rural Hawkins County. After the discussion she practiced splicing cable Broadband Technician Eric Hammer