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Ballad derided at COPA hearing

Zach Vance • Feb 7, 2019 at 11:48 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Support for Ballad Health was nonexistent at Thursday’s public hearing at Northeast State Community College as more than 35 people — including former and current Ballad employees, emergency medical technicians and former patients — expressed dissatisfaction and concern about the hospital system, post-merger.

Hosted by the nine-member Certificate of Public Advantage Local Advisory Council, more than 200 people attended the state-mandated annual public hearing, and all the community feedback gathered will be incorporated into a report the committee has to file in 30 days.

Each speaker had three minutes to talk, and nearly every person used up their time during the roughly three-hour meeting.

Some of the anecdotes shared were alarming, generating gasps from the crowd, such as Tyler Finocchio’s testimony about emergency room wait times at Holston Vally Medical Center.

Finocchio said he completed his residency program at Holston Valley before returning there to practice as a critical care pharmacist.

“Taking away trauma services would be detrimental to this hospital and this region. I came back to Ballad because this is my hometown. Kingsport is home to me. These people are my people. My family is here. But unfortunately, now, I will be leaving Ballad Health for a new job. I see physicians leaving every day. I see nurses leaving every day. I’m leaving, and I can’t leave and have a clear conscience without trying to beseech you to not let this continue to happen,” Finocchio told the committee.

“Even just a couple days ago, we had a patient come into our ER. Holston Valley was on diversion. We had about a six-hour wait time. She waited about an hour before she told the receptionist that she would rather just go die at home. Well, four hours later, EMS brought her in in full cardiac arrest. And she has now since passed away.”

Michael Honeycutt, a retired paramedic, said Ballad’s plan to consolidate Kingsport’s Level I trauma services will result in a “domino effect” that could result in longer wait times for ambulances.

“These transports aren’t taxi cab rides. You don’t pull up, throw somebody in, take them to the next hospital and dump them out. It can take hours for that ambulance to be back in service in whatever county it is. While that ambulance is gone, the calls keep coming in. All the local (EMS) agencies are at full capacity already,” Honeycutt said.

“These bad decisions in closing and decreasing trauma and NICU levels is going to affect everybody in this area. While that ambulance is out and the calls come in, there isn’t an ambulance there to take your loved one to the hospital. We’ve already heard everyone else say when they get to the hospital, they may be stacked up in the lobby for hours or days waiting to be seen.”

Sabrina Gray, an associate clinical leader at Holston Valley’s cardiovascular surgery department, emotionally explained how she did not receive her annual 2 percent raise for the first time this year, before eventually learning about a “pay grade decrease” that capped her wages.

“We were not told this during our performance evaluations,” Gray said.

Crystal Moore, a registered nurse of 10 years, called attention to several purported conflicts of interest related to the Ballad Health merger.

She said the wife of former Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner, who approved the merger, serves as CEO and president of Starfish Health, which has a telemedicine contract with Ballad Health.

Moore also brought up state Sen. Rusty Crowe’s bill last session that would have prevented some documents related to the merger to become public record. Crowe, who lists Ballad Health as a source of income on his Disclosure of Interest statement, eventually amended his bill to allow for more transparency.

Others spoke about Ballad Health not accepting their health insurance, while another mentioned national security concerns related to Holston Valley’s trauma center being downgraded.

Arguably the loudest applause of the night came when retired nurse Keltie Kerney explicitly called for the resignation of Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine.

In addition to those who spoke, some people who attended the hearing opted to submit written comments.

Local Advisory Council Chairman Doug Varney said his committee will continue to accept comments until Monday afternoon. Comments can be submitted via email to COPA.Advisory-Council@tn.gov or by mail to the COPA Local Advisory Council c/o Tennessee Department of Health - COPA, 710 James Robertson Parkway, Nashville, TN 37243.

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