Leaders at Wellmont Health System and the Mountain States Health Alliance have taken the unusual step of getting public input to identify gaps in care that a merger between the organizations could solve.
Wellmont, based in Kingsport, Tenn., and MSHA, based in Johnson City, Tenn., are convening four groups comprised of experts, public health officials and members of the public to identify ways to improve problems in the area. They will concentrate on mental health and addiction, pediatric wellness and education, research and academics, and clinical and social barriers to community wellness. The groups will begin meeting throughout the region in July.
Mountain States CEO Alan Levine and Wellmont CEO Bart Hove say the merger isn't about finances — both of their organizations are in good financial health. Rather, it's part of a 10-year plan for the united health system, which ambitiously aims to solve some of the major health problems plaguing their communities.
“We're not satisfied that the way we're currently structured today with the two systems in this region is the right structure for tomorrow,” Levine said. A merger of the two not-for-profits would help stabilize costs for employers in the region, many who are self-insured and can't afford to pay a higher cost for care, Levine said.
The CEOs are hopeful that the merger will preserve access to care in several rural areas in the region, many of which have only one hospital. The combined system would serve an area in Tennessee that has the highest rate of diabetes in the state, Levine said, combined with low literacy, high incidence of cardiovascular disease and an inpatient utilization rate that is higher than the national norm.
Students from East Tennessee State University's School of Public Health will be on staff during the workgroups to help the two systems assess the region's needs.
Wellmont spent two years looking for partnership options, according to Hove. Wellmont and Mountain States announced in April that they would pursue a merger. A definitive agreement is expected in the fall. Government approval, if given, would likely come by the end of 2015 or in January 2016.
The combined organization would span 29 counties from southeast Kentucky to northwest North Carolina, as well as Northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia. The two organizations have very little overlap, officials said.
Wellmont has a history of community engagement. In fiscal 2013, the system said it provided $70 million in uncompensated care and $6 million in health and wellness programs. Wellmont hospitals have also written off all charges for uninsured patients making less than twice the federal poverty level and 60% of charges for patients above that threshold. Mountain States, for their part, reported a total of more than $62 million in uncompensated care and charity care as well as $18 million in community health improvement services and subsidized health services. The system said it also writes off 66% of charges for all uninsured patients regardless of income and offers additional discounts for individuals below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.