County Commission disappointed with Ballad’s decision to close ICU
Published 12:13 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2023
BY ROBERT SORRELL
Carter County commissioners shared their disappointment Monday night and questioned Ballad Health officials just hours after the hospital system announced the pending closure of the intensive care unit at Sycamore Shoals Hospital.
On Monday afternoon, Ballad Health announced nearly $2 million in investments at Elizabethton’s hospital, but said it was closing the ICU on June 4. Those needing ICU services will be transferred to the Johnson City Medical Center, which is about 10 miles from Sycamore Shoals.
The decision comes after “an in-depth review of existing services and aligns with national best practices for providing intensive care services in higher-volume units that are fully staffed” with specialists, Ballad said in the statement.
In addition, Ballad said it was enhancing care for women and expanding access to psychiatric services through the addition of a psychiatric provider.
“Nobody wanted to make this decision,” Sycamore Shoals CEO Dwayne Taylor told the commission Monday.
Taylor said he is “absolutely convinced it was the best decision.”
The goal is to provide a higher amount of care in the ICU at Johnson City.
“Ballad isn’t closing Sycamore Shoals,” said Taylor, who added that the Elizabethton hospital will still provide a variety of services for the community. He added that the emergency department at Sycamore Shoals will not change.
No nurses will lose their jobs, Taylor said, as they will be given the opportunity to work elsewhere in the system.
Several commissioners voiced their disapproval in the closure of the ICU and are concerned it could lead to the loss of other services at the hospital.
Commissioner Angie Odom, who urged people to attend a state meeting regarding Ballad Health’s certificate of public advantage on June 12, said she is disappointed that commissioners had no advance knowledge of the impending changes. The meeting she referred to will be held at Northeast State Community College.
“Nothing was mentioned that there was going to be a change,” said Odom, speaking of a commission visit last month by Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine.
In April, Levine provided an update on rural hospitals in the region, and answered questions about nurse pay and “diluted” services in the system, which operates more than a dozen hospitals in Tennessee and Virginia.
Odom said she has heard from many constituents as well as nurses at Sycamore Shoals and Johnson City.
“We don’t want to lose our hospitals,” she said. “There’s too many changes.”
Odom said the distance between certain parts of Carter County, as well as nearby Johnson County, and the ICU at Johnson City may be too far for some people. She said it will also place a burden and larger workload on the Carter County Rescue Squad, which would have to transfer people to and from the hospital.
“I’m not against Ballad,” Odom said. “I’m against the removal of our services.”
She urged other commissioners to become active and work for their constituents.
Commissioners Todd Smith and Robert Acuff noted that the closure of the ICU could make it difficult for the county as it works to expand tourism and business opportunities.
“You cannot build up Carter County if there is no health care,” Smith said.
Smith said he and other commissioners have not had the opportunity to provide input to Ballad regarding the changes.
“This is not going to stop at the ICU,” Smith said.
Commissioner Donnie Cable, who noted that he lives 30 minutes from the courthouse and even farther from the hospital, said officials should not be considering transporting elderly further than they need to go.
“We are concerned about health care and the quality of health care in this county,” Cable said.
He added, “We were elected to work for the people and that’s what we should do.”
Commissioner Nancy Brown, who previously spoke up about the difference in pay between nurses at Sycamore Shoals and Johnson City, said she is concerned about other changes at the hospital.
“Don’t do this to us,” Brown said.
Commissioner Aaron Frazier asked Taylor about the annual cost savings the closure will provide Ballad.
“I don’t know,” Taylor said. “It’s not about money for us.”
Frazier said he understood what Ballad was saying but did not believe it was the best decision.
The commissioner also criticized the “dog and pony show” recently given by Ballad.
Commissioner Kelly Collins said she believes Ballad’s change will cost the taxpayers more in the long run due to transportation and asked whether Ballad has considered the issue.
“We will do everything we can to minimize the work of the EMS,” Taylor said.
Acuff said like others, he is concerned about what else might be lost in the future. He said he was also concerned about “very little communication” from Ballad.
Mayor Patty Woodby said she plans to work with Ballad and others to further education in the county regarding health care and nursing. She said her goal is to improve local rural hospitals.
In addition to discussing the changes at Ballad Health, the commission also approved new contracts with the Carter County Rescue Squad and the Carter County 911.
The commission also recognized former sheriff and current constable John Henson for his more than a half century of law enforcement service to Carter County.
Henson, who joined the Carter County Sheriff’s Office in 1966, currently serves as constable for the third district.
During his time at the sheriff’s office, Henson served as a dispatcher and jailer, a deputy, lieutenant sheriff, patrol captain and sheriff, which he served from 1996 to 2006.
Commissioner Lisa Childress, who led Henson’s recognition, said Henson’s “quick and decisive actions saved many lives” during flooding in 1998 in Roan Mountain.
Fellow Constable Bob Carroll said Henson went door to door warning residents of Roan Mountain of the incoming wall of water that flooded the community, saving many lives.
“He is the true picture of what a law enforcement officer should be,” Constable Bob Carroll said.
Carroll said he has seen Henson take money out of his own pocket to help others.
Woodby also recognized 31 students who had recently graduated from high school and also received college credit.
“These guys are going to be workforce ready,” Woodby said.
Carter County Director of Schools Brandon Carpenter said the county’s graduating children “Are leaving high school ahead of others.”