ABINGDON, Va. — The chairman of a new task force charged with helping oversee Ballad Health is concerned Southwest Virginia might be overlooked by the Tennessee-based health care provider.
State Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, voiced those concerns Monday following the task force’s organizational meeting at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon. The task force was created by the Southwest Virginia Health Authority following lengthy conversations with the state secretary of health about how best to oversee the $2.2 billion organization that operates 21 hospitals in Tennessee and Virginia and employs about 15,000.
“Ballad’s tagline is ‘it’s your story, we’re listening.’ But they’re not,” Pillion said. “Ballad needs to hold to that. Ballad needs to listen.”
About two-thirds of the company’s facilities and business occurs in Tennessee compared to about a third in Virginia. Both states had to approve separate agreements to allow the 2018 merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System, which formed Ballad. A similar local task force has been operating in Tennessee since before the merger was finalized.
Pillion expressed concern that Virginia had no voice in recent Ballad decisions to consolidate neonatal intensive care services in Johnson City and downgrade the Level I trauma center in Kingsport, which treated a large number of Virginia patients.
“Call me a commonwealth protectionist, but I want to make sure any care that can be given in a community in Virginia should be given in a community in Virginia,” Pillion said. “I grew up in the far end of Lee County, and I recognize it’s a long way to Kingsport, but it’s an even further distance to Johnson City. … I’m thankful we’re getting an urgent care and soon a hospital reopened in Lee County, but we have to be aware very critical patients are traveling very long distances.”
Pillion said he wants to keep existing services and expand any services possible. During a Ballad presentation, he asked about plans to add a nephrologist, which deals with kidney issues, to the staff at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon.
“If we’re so good at nephrology in Virginia, why aren’t we bringing patients from Tennessee into Virginia? Why are we only traveling into Tennessee? Those are questions I plan to continue to ask,” he said.
Pillion was urged to chair the committee by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, who chairs the health authority board. Dr. Sue Cantrell, director of the LENOWISCO Health District/Cumberland Plateau Health District, was chosen vice chairwoman, and former Bristol Virginia Mayor Catherine Brillhart was named secretary during the group’s nearly two-hour organizational meeting.
They also formed a subcommittee to review applicants from the general public and choose three people to round out the task force.
Health Authority attorney Jeff Mitchell explained details of a “robust” 10-page memorandum of agreement between the Virginia Department of Health and the Southwest Virginia Health Authority, regarding its role in overseeing Ballad Health.
“We got to a point that really articulates your responsibilities to the public at large and to you as individual members wanting to make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do. I think we have accomplished that,” Mitchell said.
The task force took no action on the memorandum Monday but expects to consider it at its November meeting.
The memorandum spells out specific authority responsibilities, including:
» Advising the commissioner on its active supervision of Ballad Health;
» Conducting an annual public hearing to allow the public to formally comment on Ballad’s compliance with the Virginia Cooperative Agreement;
» Reviewing and providing recommendations to the commissioner for any action based on Ballad meeting its agreed metrics and analyzing all submissions by Ballad;
» Meeting regularly with the state health department to share information and communicate with Ballad Health.
The Health Authority hired Washington, D.C., attorney Dennis Barry to serve as its Ballad merger monitor. He will be paid $3,500 monthly and reimbursed business travel expenses and is expected to work between 35 and 70 hours per month.
Barry said his aim is to focus on local concerns, serve as a channel of communication between the authority and Ballad, and furnish insights for the state regulators while avoiding duplication with state regulators.