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Ballad’s flagship hospital, Johnson City Medical Center, in Johnson City, Tenn.

ABINGDON – Ballad Health officials acknowledged Wednesday they could have done a better job letting people know they were no longer doing surgery at a Norton hospital, but said that they did notify the state of the change.

However, Virginia’s health department could not have notified the public, either, because much of Ballad’s correspondence is considered proprietary, said Erik Bodin, who is director of the division that includes overseeing the cooperative agreement that allowed two rival health systems to merge in the coalfields.

Bodin and two Ballad executives briefed members of the Southwest Virginia Health Authority Wednesday at a meeting in Abingdon about the health system’s plans for changes and of how the state has approached oversight.

Bodin last week told The Roanoke Times that Ballad had presented a plan to consolidate services within Wise County where two hospitals in Norton and one in Lonesome Pine previously were competitors, but that nothing had been approved. He said the plan along with the staff’s report to the health commissioner would be made public.

However, his report to the authority board differed. He said Ballad is claiming the plan is proprietary and not fully available for public disclosure, which would make the state’s response proprietary as well.

After the meeting, Bodin said a letter surfaced written by a former Virginia official during merger talks that appears to allow secrecy. The state health department is seeking an opinion from the attorney general.

“I’m very much aware of not keeping things secret because I’m not sure that is anyone’s best interest. I understand the need for some things to be propriety, but we need to be as open as we can,” he said.

“We don’t want to do anything and divulge something that we shouldn’t in the early stages, but we also don’t want to not be releasing something that has an impact on community.”

Eric Deaton, Ballad’s senior vice president of market operations, and Mark Leonard, chief executive of the hospitals in Wise and Dickenson counties, said they are trying to do a better job at communicating but their initial consolidation plans needed to be kept under wraps because they are likely to change as they undergo state approval.

“I think you have to be sensitive about what you are communicating to people because you don’t want to panic people,” Deaton said.

He said the local hospital board and medical staff were aware when surgeries were halted at Mountain View Hospital in October.

Ballad notified Virginia in early November. Leonard said once the hospitals came under one management, and were no longer competing, the surgeons raised safety concerns with one team rotating between Mountain View and Lonesome Pine.

“We did notify the state we were doing it, and why we are doing it,” Leonard said.

“We can all appreciate patient safety,” said Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, a member of the regional health board. “Again, I think the problem is communication. That is the continuing problem that we have.”

Bodin said his department now has a staff member living and working in the region who will be visiting the hospitals, talking to people in the communities and investigating complaints.

The authority board is forming an 11-member task force that will include four members of the public with the intent to provide local oversight.

“We are hearing a lot of frustration from the public with regard to communication and with regard to care,” Bodin said. The problem is sorting out which complaints fall under licensure as any other hospital system would, and which fall to the cooperative agreement.

Bodin said the overall Ballad has been working diligently to provide the state with the information required under the agreement. He said his department is working on creating a dashboard on the state’s website to better share the information.

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