Part 1 of a four part series examining how competing truths over consolidation impact a health system and its community.
KINGSPORT, TENN.—On a weekday morning in Kingsport, shoppers mill about a small farmer’s market, stepping over puddles of fresh rainwater, carefully examining ears of corn and plump bell peppers.
The mood is jovial—vendors gab with regulars over the hum of a food truck selling coffee and doughnuts. But when shoppers in this quiet Appalachian city four hours east of Nashville are asked their opinions of the region’s newly merged health system, Ballad Health, their sunny faces crumple into scowls, almost as if recoiling from an insult.
“Their concern is a dollar bill and the patient be damned. That’s how I see it,” said Charles Chance, a retired nurse anesthetist who lives in Kingsport and sells stuffed bears and wooden toy trains at the farmer’s market.
Walking between produce booths, Kingsport resident Crandell Craft, who said he's had two major heart surgeries, casually recalled visiting his local emergency department for heart arrhythmia at 4:30 one afternoon and not being seen until 9:30 the following morning. Ballad refutes that claim.
Deb Reynolds, a Red Cross volunteer and retired chemical engineer, said she’s concerned about the medical providers she’s seen move away.
“I’m watching our specialists leave the area,” she said. “We’ve got so many homes for sale.”
Since the merger to form Ballad became official in February 2018, the health system, which has $2 billion in annual revenue, has swiftly rolled out changes to consolidate high-level services into Ballad’s Johnson City hospital a half-hour south. That’s meant stripping the Kingsport hospital of its neonatal intensive care unit and downgrading its trauma center. Ballad’s CEO, Alan Levine, said competition between the two legacy systems led to an irrational, inappropriate duplication of services in the region that were expensive to run. He also said patient care will be safer once it's centralized in Johnson City.