By Scott Robertson
With the Tennessee Certificate of Public Advantage (COPA) approved Jan. 31, and a companion document already in hand from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the merger of Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System was formally announced Feb. 2 at MeadowView Conference Resort & Convention Center in Kingsport. Alan Levine, who now serves as chairman and CEO of Ballad Health, stood very near the spot where he had first taken part in announcing the planned merger in April, 2015.
Levine acknowledged the length of time necessary to bring the merger to fruition, but only in the context of thanking Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzhener for his work in assessing the merger’s merits and overseeing the COPA approval process. “John did not ask for this,” Levine said. “He was minding his own business doing his job in Nashville when all of a sudden, this bill pops up giving him this extraordinary responsibility. The department and the attorney general did not ask for the volume of work this created for them, nor did Marissa Levine in Virginia, nor the attorney general of Virginia, but they took it on.”
Levine then focused on a list of forward-looking statements regarding what can happen now that the merger has been approved. “Today, I can announce that the planning has now commenced to bring a new pediatric trauma center to our region, the only region of Tennessee that does not have one. Planning has now commenced for the development of a residential addiction treatment campus. Planning has now commenced for the development of a pediatric emergency department here in Kingsport and in Bristol.
“Discussions have now begun between us and academic institutions, most notably East Tennessee State University, to develop a regional education consortium to help guide the planning for our emergence as a center for research and academic advancement. We have formed a population health organization within Ballad Health that will serve as a conduit for targeted improvement in the health of our communities. I believe what we spend will be important, but I also think we are going to attract significant outside investment in what we’re trying to do as we tell our story nationally.
“Just this week Scott Niswonger and I met to discuss strategies for how we can contribute to improve third grade reading proficiency in our region. Those efforts began simply because the commissioner signed the document.”
Levine did not shy away from the fact that the financial condition of both hospital systems was already serious coming into the merger. “Both Wellmont and Mountain States have seen over the last eight months a substantial decline in our cash flow. That obviously concerns me, not because of anything we’ve done, but because the 340B program has been cut back now by HHS, because of Medicare reductions, because of things that some of the insurance companies are doing unilaterally. The shift from inpatient to outpatient is having an effect on us…I think you’ll see (in our next financial report) a deterioration in the financial performance of both of our systems, which is consistent with what is happening all over the country.
“Bringing two systems together is tough,” Levine said. “The headwinds in the health system are not going away…Those aren’t going away, so there are challenges ahead. But there are some very good things that are going to happen.”
Ballad announces retirement of Bart Hove
The day the merger between Wellmont Health System and Mountain States Health Alliance became official, Ballad Health announced that Bart Hove, the previous chief executive officer of Wellmont, made the decision to retire. Hove had been slated to serve as CEO of Ballad Health.
In a letter to the Ballad Health board of directors, Hove made the surprise announcement. In it, he articulated strong support for the newly appointed management team, a group composed of individuals from both organizations.
“It is now time to let the newly appointed and capable management team and board lead the healthcare change for our region,” wrote Hove. “At this juncture in the road, it becomes an opportunity for my wife Marsha and me to continue on another journey, and thus I am announcing my retirement effective February 1, 2018. Thank you for having placed the trust and confidence in me to this point.”
Hove, 65, had been asked to return from retirement in 2014 to lead Wellmont through its strategic options process. He decided to return to retirement upon the closing of the merger transaction yesterday.
With 32 years of healthcare management experience, Hove has served in a variety of leadership roles, and has been recognized for his leadership by a number of organizations, including the Tennessee Hospital Association, and the American College of Healthcare Executives. He is a past president of the United Way of Bristol and is a Paul Harris Fellow with the Rotary Club. Hove earned his bachelor’s degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and a master’s degree in hospital administration from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
“While Bart’s announcement comes as a surprise to all of us, the board and management team of Ballad Health understand his and Marsha’s desire to return to retirement,” said Alan Levine, executive chair and president of Ballad Health. “Bart has become a close friend, so personally, I’m saddened to see him leave. But he leaves having been a part of creating something important. He truly cares about the people he worked with and the community they serve.”
In the immediate term, in addition to Levine’s role as executive chairman and president of Ballad Health, he will assume the position of chief executive officer and will consult with the Ballad Health board in the coming weeks regarding the best path forward for the organization.
With more than 25 years of hospital operations experience, Levine has served as chief executive officer of hospitals and health systems ranging from a small rural hospital to one of the largest public systems in America.
“The Ballad Health board of directors has total confidence in Alan and the management team he and Bart assembled, and we stand behind the work they are doing,” said David Lester, lead independent director of the Ballad Health board and former chair of Wellmont’s strategic options committee. “We are grateful to Bart for his service to Wellmont and for helping us get to where we are today. We wish him the best in his return to retirement.”