Wellmont: Ruling will not deter new hospital

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- Wellmont officials plan to appeal a Davidson County judge's order to uphold an earlier court ruling that vacated the health care corporation's Certificate of Need to build a new, for-profit hospital in Johnson City.
   Davidson County Chancery Court judge, Carol McCoy, agreed with Administrative Law Judge Blair Scoville-Morgan's ruling that the certificate of need granted to Wellmont by the Tennessee Health Commission to build the hospital should not be reinstated because a member of the former Health Facilities Commission may have had a conflict of interest when he voted in favor of the CON.
   Wellmont officials also maintain the ruling will not derail their plans to build the new hospital.
   "While (Tuesday's) outcome is certainly disappointing, our efforts to build this essential hospital in Washington County have not ceased," said Wellmont President and Chief Executive Officer Eddie George in a released statement.
   "The people of Washington County and Johnson City have a clear need for additional access to medical services, and Wellmont is committed to meeting that need."
   Mountain States Health Alliance welcomed the ruling as the second court decision to go their way in the 2 1/2-year battle to block Wellmont from constructing a hospital in Washington County.
   "We're obviously very pleased with the ruling and feel strongly it's been our feeling all along that the certificate of need shouldn't have been awarded," said Mountain States Health Alliance President/CEO Dennis Vonderfecht at a press conference held at the Johnson City Medical Center on Friday morning. "This is the second consecutive court ruling that supports our position."
   McCoy's order stated that law judge ruling that there was substantial and material evidence in the record to support Scoville-Morgan in ruling that HFC Commissioner, Charles Mann "was under a conflict of interest so as to taint the deliberations and voting on the CON."
   Mann's surgical supply company does business with several health systems, including Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance.
   Wellmont Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs Gary Miller said the ruling by McCoy was " .. flawed, and that appealing the decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals is the most appropriate course of action.
   "Mountain States has raised this same issue time and time again," Miller said. "It is an issue that has nothing to do with the hospital itself or the fact that it is desperately needed. This ruling does not change our commitment to bringing a Wellmont hospital to Johnson City."
   According to her order, McCoy also agreed with Scoville-Morgan's determination that "the decision to issue the Certificate of Need was based, in whole or in part, on information or data in the application which was false, incorrect, or misleading."
   In her final conclusion, McCoy affirmed the decision made by the Administrative Law judge "to grant summary judgment and vacate the Wellmont CON."
   Mountain States had challenged Wellmont's data submitted to the Commission that the county needed more hospital beds. Vonderfecht stated he did not feel Wellmont's data was intentionally skewed to reflect a need for more beds, yet maintained the data was flawed.
   Vonderfecht indicated that while MSHA was sensitive to community support of a new hospital in Washington County, data pertaining to bed needs and occupancy rates of MSHA facilities did not support the need for a new hospital.
   Mountain States has 1,124 licensed beds and a system-wide occupancy rate of 45.2% for all their facilities as of August 2002, according to a MSHA spokesperson.
   Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethton has 121 licensed beds, and reported an in-patient occupancy rate of 22.8 percent for October 2002.
   Wellmont announced plans to build a new $56-million, 65-bed hospital near State of Franklin Road and Sunset Drive in May 2000. The Health Facilities Commission approved the Certificate of Need by a 5-4 vote in October 2000.