News 13 Investigates: What will it mean for mountain residents if Mission is sold to HCA

A growing number of people are raising concerns about the proposed sale of Mission Health to HCA, a for-profit company. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

A growing number of people are raising concerns about the proposed sale of Mission Health. A News 13 investigation looked into why several groups have now come forward with worries the community will lose if Mission Health is sold to HCA, a for-profit company.

Some of them met Tuesday with the former governor and attorney general of Missouri, Jay Nixon, who fought with HCA in his own state. They're worried the sale of the community-owned non-profit hospital system will lead to layoffs and a loss of healthcare in rural communities.

Mission Health, Western North Carolina's largest employer with six hospitals and numerous outpatient and surgery centers, is often top-rated and profitable, according to Mission. But, according to the hospital's board chairman, it's facing an impending financial crisis.

"Western North Carolina has a demographic problem. Our citizens are older, sicker, poorer and less insured than those of the rest of the state or of the nation," Mission Health Board of Directors chairman Dr. John Ball said.

For that, and other reasons, Mission Health CEO Ron Paulus believes selling the community-owned health system for $1.5 billion to HCA is the best way to ensure access to high quality care for the people of Western North Carolina.

But a community organization based in Yancey and Mitchell counties disagrees.

"Well first of all, let me say SEARCH stands for sustaining essential and rural community healthcare," group member Victoria Hicks said.

SEARCH fears its local Blue Ridge Community Hospital in Spruce Pine owned by Mission could eventually be on the chopping block. SEARCH began organizing when Mission pulled labor and delivery services last year at the community hospital.

"People didn't want to lose it. People felt that they should have had some heads up in advance to try and work with Mission to find a way to save that service in our local community," Hicks said.

SEARCH members said Mission's disregard for the community in that case could be an indicator of what's to come.

"Mission has tried to allay everyone's fears about this sale by saying don't worry your hospital will be protected and in fact it will have protections that do not exist today," Hicks said.

Mission said HCA will keep key clinical services for at least five years and keep all rehabilitation and acute care hospitals for a minimum of 10. But SEARCH isn't buying it.

"When we actually got a hold of the sales agreement, which became public a few weeks ago, there are some very significant loopholes." Hicks said.

Hicks is referring to a contingency in the contract spelled out in the purchase agreement on page 105, under operations of the hospitals. It says, "Unless otherwise consented in writing" by an advisory board ... HCA cannot close "any member hospital facility" with exceptions for disasters or if the services are "impossible or commercially unreasonable."

Asheville City councilman Veejay Kapoor shared the same concern during a Mission Health update with elected leaders last week.

"One of the things built into this you talked about Dr. Ball is some protections," Kapoor said.

Mission Health Board chairman Dr. John Ball said it's true HCA could close facilities regardless of protections, but only if a local advisory board made up of HCA and Mission members approve it and stringent criteria are met.

"Hurricane, for example, destroys the place. The second criteria is if the services became unable to be supported in a financial kind of way. But part of those criteria are 33 percent of services dropped," Ball said.

"In these kinds of transactions, there's always going to be uncertainty," Kapoor said. "Anyone who's going to tell you it's 100 percent perfect isn't telling you the truth."

SEARCH's Hicks agrees.

"We feel like we're not satisfied that the protections are real," Hicks said.

Mission Health officials anticipate that the sale will be completed by the end of the year.

But that can only happen if the state attorney general approves it. Nixon plans to meet with him to express the public's concerns.

Groups concerned about the sale are now pushing for changes in the purchase agreement.

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