Monday, August 03, 2015

Rural hospital in southwest Va., closed by chain, set to reopen after remarkable, multi-level effort

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Almost two years ago, the Wellmont chain closed the Lee County Hospital in Pennington Gap, Va., near the southwest tip of the state, "for all the wrong reasons," as local officials put it to Luanne Rife of The Roanoke Times. This fall or winter, the hospital is to reopen after a remarkable effort by local, state and federal officials to make a way for it. U.S. Sen. Mark Warner told Rife, "Communities moan and give up. The folks in Lee County stood up and said, ‘We’ll fix this.’"

The story is a complicated one, well told by Rife. But the human dimension is simple. “There is no doubt that people have passed away because there was no hospital here,” Sheriff Gary Parsons told her. “We lose the golden hour in the amount of time that it takes to get them to another hospital in Big Stone or Kingsport.” And the county's economic-development efforts have suffered due to the loss of the hospital, which employed 140 peopele.

Parsons, echoing others, accused Wellmont of "double talk" in explaining why it closed the hospital. It cited reimbursement cuts associated with Obamacare, extremely low community use of the hospital and a lack of consistent physician coverage. Locals "claim the first two reasons resulted from a crisis manufactured by Wellmont managers to shift doctors and patients to other hospitals in their network," Rife reports. "Many in Lee County believe their hospital and their health were sacrificed to improve the nonprofit’s bottom line because Wellmont was searching for a merger partner."

Rife explains that when Wellmont bought the hospital in 2007, it didn't really want it, but took it in a package deal with Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Norton, where it "could go head-to-head against its regional rival, Mountain State Health Alliance and its Norton Community Hospital." Wellmont wouldn't talk about its reasons.

As it turns out, the new Lee County Hospital Authority plans to hire Mountain State to provide services. And Mountain State and Wellmont "are in negotiations to merge," Rife reports.

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