KINGSPORT, Tenn. – Molly Worley is an angry grandma.
For weeks she has stubbornly occupied a folding lawn chair on a grassy median outside Holston Valley Medical Center, sheltered from sweltering Appalachian summer sun by a thin tarp and flanked by a rotating crew staging a round-the-clock protest since May 1.
Behind them is the state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit where Worley’s newborn grandson spent his first weeks of life treated for opioid exposure.
In the same building is a Level I trauma center to respond to the most critical emergencies.
Both facilities will downgraded in the coming months, diverting the sickest babies and adults elsewhere.
The cuts are the latest fallout from an unusual and controversial merger between two former rival hospital systems headquartered in northeast Tennessee.
The newly formed company, Ballad Health, is now the sole hospital provider for a region the size of New Jersey. For nearly 1.2 million people people living in a largely rural stretch of 29 counties in northeast Tennessee and nearby parts of Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky, Ballad hospitals are the only inpatient option.
Mergers involving hospitals that compete for same patients face opposition from the Federal Trade Commission, which can block mergers on the grounds the combined company can limit patient choices, cut services, raise prices and diminish quality.
Ballad officials found a way to bypass FTC rules. They turned to Tennessee state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, who successfully carried legislation making the merger possible. Crowe is a longtime paid consultant with Ballad hospitals.
Only a handful of other states have exempted similar hospital mergers from FTC anti-monopoly rules. Ballad’s is the largest.
CEO Alan Levine said the merger lets the hospital system save money and keep rural hospitals afloat in a state that is already No. 2 in the nation for closures.
Eliminating overlapping staff and services, including the trauma center and NICU, will free funds to invest in other public health initiatives. Ballad pledged to keep open all of its rural hospitals for five years and to invest $308 million in public health, medical education and other initiatives.
“Every decision we make starts and ends with how can we best serve the community and what does the evidence show will lead to the best possible outcome,” Levine said.
“You don’t want a trauma center on every corner and you don’t want a NICU on every corner because it dilutes volume and hurts quality,” he said.
No rural hospitals owned by Ballad have been closed.
Some residents, doctors, nurses, EMS workers and public officials say the changes by Ballad expose the dangers of a single system imposing decisions on health care services on a captive audience that has no other options. More than 23,000 people have signed a petition opposing Ballad’s proposed changes.
“Never ever have I been this outspoken about anything,” said Worley, 60. “This NICU saved my grandson’s life. With Ballad we have no other choice. They have a monopoly at every level of health care.”
As hospital systems across the country struggle to stay afloat, particularly in rural areas, Ballad’s plan is being closely watched by other states weighing whether to allow other hospitals to take a similar approach.