GREENEVILLE, Tenn. — The most famous person to live in this mountain town knew about divisiveness, loyalty and the sway of public sentiment.
Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States and the first to be impeached (he survived it), moved to Greene County as a young, uneducated man. He learned to tailor and to politic.
In a sense, Tammy Albright is mastering those skills, too, as she knits together a new way to deliver health care in a community where sides were divided in loyalty to one hospital or another.
Albright is CEO of Ballad Health’s Greene County region.
When Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Heath System merged last year to create Ballad, the deal brought together 21 hospitals that included two in Greeneville just four miles apart: Laughlin Memorial, once part of Mountain States, and Takoma Regional, which was part of Wellmont’s system, although its Christian artwork speaks to its not-so-distant Adventist Health heritage.
The bed count, 250 at Laughlin and 100 at Takoma, also harks back to a different time, when hospitals delivered most of their services to inpatients. Today, on their busiest days, about 20 percent of the beds are used. The hospitals are not financially sustainable. Together, they posted a loss of nearly $10 million in the last fiscal year.
In January, Ballad announced plans to consolidate services and said a community numbering less than 70,000 people couldn’t support both facilities.
With the consolidation comes a new name, Greeneville Community Hospital, with the east campus (Laughlin) remaining an acute-care hospital offering all the same services, and the west campus (Takoma) offering outpatient services, occupational and emergency medicine, inpatient rehabilitation, wound care, a sleep lab and behavioral health for elderly patients.
Albright said the plan is to add more services so that people will not have to travel outside their community for much of their health care.
“We are creating something new. What we’ve done in the past was appropriate. But our industry is changing and if we don’t, then we will be left behind and we want to make sure we have health care here for our friends and neighbors. That’s what is most important to me,” she said.
“We’re not going to do everything here. We’re not going to do open-heart surgery or neurosurgery. We’ve never done that. But if you have pneumonia or need general surgery or orthopedic surgery, you should be able to have it here because it is such an inconvenience for people to travel outside of their community if it’s not necessary.”
But saying that hasn’t kept people from thinking change is going to hurt, she said.
“Really, the challenge is the false rumors in the community. I spend a ton, just a ton, of time combating those, and they’re from people who have no knowledge of what is going on from inside our industry,” she said.
“You put the plan out and say this is what we are doing. They’ll say no, that’s not what they are doing. We had a day here where the switchboard was overwhelmed with people calling saying, ‘Is the hospital closing today?’ I assure you, we’re still here, but someone put something on Facebook, and it just blew up.”
Employees are starting to transition. The official consolidation date is April 1, once both hospitals and all departments are using the same electronic health record system.
Because Ballad is not eliminating employees or service lines, the consolidation did not require the approval of state regulators.
Albright said Ballad remains committed to keeping its work force, one of the largest in the county.
She understands the uncertainty that change brings, and the concerns of employees whose duties might change.
“To me it’s the opportunity to play on the all-star team. You aren’t a Cub or a Yankee. You may now not play the same position or bat in the same order in the line-up. But you are contributing,” she said.
Greeneville is the first place in Ballad’s system to undergo consolidation and shifting of services within a community. As rivals, Mountain States and Wellmont had competing hospitals in several towns, including Norton.
Albright said in Greene County many families were loyal to one health system over the other.
“They were competitors for so long and focused on the differences, so now you have to say how we are alike,” she said. “Both hospitals provided great care for many, many years, so you have to focus on that.”
This story was reported with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism.