Wellmont, MSHA announce joint plan for tobacco-free facilities

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Staff
mharrell@starhq.com

   The relationship between Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance could be described as strained at best. However, the two local healthcare providers have put differences aside to create tobacco-free environments at their facilities.
   Plans for the change to entirely tobacco-free environments in all of Wellmont's and MSHA's facilities were announced at a media conference Monday. Wellmont CEO Eddie George and MSHA CEO Dennis Vonderfecht came together yesterday to announce the change which will take place in two phases.
   Beginning July 1, 2003, both Wellmont and MSHA will provide entirely tobacco-free campuses for their employees, staff and employed physicians. Patients, visitors and non-employed physicians will fall under the tobacco-free umbrella within the following year, and the only facilities exempt from the changes are freestanding hospice and psychiatric facilities.
   Ed Herbert, vice president of MSHA, said that the two healthcare systems are simply catching up with other industries across the nation that made tobacco use at the workplace taboo years ago. He said the healthcare industry should be taking the initiative and leading the way toward healthier working environments.
   "This is happening all over the country, but we are looking at an issue here where we as healthcare providers need to take the lead," Herbert said. "Some hospitals will not even interview people who smoke."
   The new initiatives at Wellmont and MSHA include programs and incentives to help employees stop using tobacco products. Free smoking cessation classes for the systems' employees and members of their immediate families will be conducted in February. Both Wellmont and MSHA will be providing their employees with nicotine replacement products at cost.
   Employees who continue to use tobacco products after July 1 will only be allowed to do so inside their vehicles. They will be required to clock out if they leave the job site in order to go to their vehicles to use tobacco products.
   The healthcare systems have taken a hard line with implementing the new tobacco policies. Any employee found in violation of the tobacco-free policy will be subject to disciplinary action per appropriate procedures within each healthcare system.
   Herbert said that, as of Monday afternoon he had not received any negative feedback from MSHA employees. He said his office offered team members a great deal of information on the changes before the details were made public, and employees were given the opportunity to respond. Posters highlighting the changes were put up in all of MSHA's facilities, and e-mails were sent to employees which discussed the new guidelines.
   "I have not heard anything negative at this point. It has been very quiet all day, but that is not saying it is not out there," Herbert said.
   Herbert said he checked his e-mail regularly throughout the day Monday in anticipation of negative feedback from team members who smoke, but was surprised to only receive responses from non-smokers. He added that no negative comments from the employees at Sycamore Shoals Hospital have reached his office.
   Wellmont President Eddie George believes that the use of tobacco is contradictory to what healthcare professionals are trying to accomplish. He said the mindset behind the more stringent tobacco guidelines is a simple one.
   "Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance are taking this action because our shared mission as community healthcare providers demands it. We know with absolute certainty this is the right thing to do," George said.
   Officials at both healthcare systems agree the evidence that tobacco use kills is indisputable, and see it as an area of particular concern impacting Tennesseans. The American Lung Association has issued a report showing that 32 percent of the teens in Tennessee smoke, while 17 percent of the middle school students admit to using cigarettes.
   Members of the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, March of Dimes and the James H. Quillen College of Medicine were in attendance at the healthcare systems' announcement. Representatives from Hardee's and Shoney's restaurants also came out to show their support of the hospital networks' decisions to make their campuses tobacco-free. The restaurant chains took similar action with their employees a few years ago.