The Independent Monitor Comes to Town
Recently ten SEARCHers (present or past board and committee members) met in-person in Spruce Pine with Tom Urban and Ginger Smith of the Gibbins Advisors Team and Elizabeth Becker, Compliance Officer of the Dogwood Health Trust. Ron Winters was present by phone. Contracted to assess whether or not HCA is meeting the obligations of the Asset Purchase Agreement (APA) put in place when HCA bought the Mission Health System in 2019, Gibbins Advisors is visiting the WNC hospitals and communities included in the sale.
A number of topics were covered, One was Emergency Services and how decisions were made to transfer patients away from Blue Ridge Hospital (BRRH) and whose responsibility it was to transport them. Bryant Reid of Mitchell Medics was present along with Stephanie Wiseman, who oversees the 911 Center and they gave insight into the question. Reid noted that communication has improved between EMS and the hospital as a result of an RN from BRRH attending Mitchell Medics’ peer review meetings.
Hospital expansion came up in the discussion with a question about the state’s announcement that there was a need for up to 67 more hospital beds in Buncombe County. A speaker observed that HCA (and previously Mission’s) hub and spokes model does not portend well for the long-term viability of essential services at Blue Ridge Regional Hospital.
Another topic was communication. While the group thought CEO Tonia Hale praiseworthy in her willingness to talk to the public, they pointed out that her time available is less now that she is acting CEO of McDowell Hospital as well. They expressed concern that elected officials used to be invited to the hospital for regular up-dates, but under HCA that is not happening so neither they nor the public gets regular in-person information about the hospital. In a side note, Susan Larson mentioned that Sam Hazen, the CEO of HCA, had recently paid a visit to Maureen Copelof, the Mayor of Brevard, who has been outspoken in her attempts to get metrics information from HCA about Transylvania General Hospital.
There were questions about the commitment made by HCA to keep the five rural hospitals open for 10 years. Was there language in the APA that might allow services to be dropped in 5 years? What would the role of the Advisory Board be in such a situation? Would the fact that Blue Ridge does not have full surgical coverage play into a decision? Gibbins Advisors was asked to project a few years forward to the end of the first five years. Did they think that DHT would be willing to challenge DHT then? No definitive response was given.
Ginger Smith, who assesses whether or not HCA is living up to the financial side of Asset Purchase Agreement, read off the list of capital expenditures HCA reported making at BRRH in 2021. The total amount of mostly unseen repairs and upgrades was $4.9 million. Bryant Reid suggested a specific expenditure which would benefit BRRH and that is a second CT scanner so that patients would not have to be transferred out of the county if the hospital’s one scanner is tied up or not working.
Anyone with an interest in learning more about these topics and others that were discussed with Gibbins Advisors is invited to attend the public meeting which SEARCH will host at the Burnsville Town Center on Thursday, June 16. Specific questions may also be sent at any time to SEARCHwnc@gmail.com.