Photo above: Alan Levine Photo by Bill Derby
By Scott Robertson
With the Tennessee Certificate of Public Advantage (COPA) approved Jan. 31, and a companion document already in hand from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System was formally announced Feb. 2 at MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center in Kingsport. Alan Levine, who now serves as chairman and CEO of Ballad Health, stood very near the spot where he had first taken part in announcing the planned merger in April, 2015.
Levine acknowledged the length of time necessary to bring the merger to fruition, but only in the context of thanking Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzhener for his work in assessing the merger’s merits and overseeing the COPA approval process. “John did not ask for this,” Levine said. “He was minding his own business doing his job in Nashville when all of a sudden, this bill pops up giving him this extraordinary responsibility. The department and the attorney general did not ask for the volume of work this created for them, nor did Marissa Levine in Virginia, nor the attorney general of Virginia, but they took it on.”
Levine then focused on a list of forward-looking statements regarding what can happen now that the merger has been approved. “Today, I can announce that the planning has now commenced to bring a new pediatric trauma center to our region, the only region of Tennessee that does not have one. Planning has now commenced for the development of a residential addiction treatment campus. Planning has now commenced for the development of a pediatric emergency department here in Kingsport and in Bristol.
“Discussions have now begun between us and academic institutions, most notably East Tennessee State University, to develop a regional education consortium to help guide the planning for our emergence as a center for research and academic advancement. We have formed a population health organization within Ballad Health that will serve as a conduit for targeted improvement in the health of our communities. I believe what we spend will be important, but I also think we are going to attract significant outside investment in what we’re trying to do as we tell our story nationally.
“Just this week Scott Niswonger and I met to discuss strategies for how we can contribute to improve third grade reading proficiency in our region. Those efforts began simply because the commissioner signed the document.”
Levine did not shy away from the fact that the financial condition of both hospital systems was already serious coming into the merger. “Both Wellmont and Mountain States have seen over the last eight months a substantial decline in our cash flow. That obviously concerns me, not because of anything we’ve done, but because the 340B program has been cut back now by HHS, because of Medicare reductions, because of things that some of the insurance companies are doing unilaterally. The shift from inpatient to outpatient is having an effect on us…I think you’ll see (in our next financial report) a deterioration in the financial performance of both of our systems, which is consistent with what is happening all over the country.
“Bringing two systems together is tough,” Levine said. “The headwinds in the health system are not going away…Those aren’t going away, so there are challenges ahead. But there are some very good things that are going to happen.”