Mountain States Health Alliance representatives, local officials and stakeholders grab a shovel to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony held last week for the new location of Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. The facility will be located at 2030 Temple Hill Road. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Brad Hicks)

By Brad Hicks

Mountain States Health Alliance representatives, local officials and stakeholders gathered last week to don their hard hats, take up their ceremonial shovels and turn dirt to mark the official start of construction on the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new facility was held Wednesday, July 26, at 2030 Temple Hill Road, the site on which the replacement hospital will be built.

“I know I speak for the hospital staff as well as the entire community when I say we are excited for this day and can’t wait to see this great new facility begin to take shape,” said UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll.

The approximately 40,000 square-foot facility will replace the current UCMH, which opened its doors more than 60 years ago. Once complete, the hospital will have 20 beds – 10 in its emergency department and 10 for inpatient services. Along with a 24-hour emergency department and  inpatient acute-care services, the new hospital will offer patients standard and advanced diagnostics, will include a chest pain center, an area for community education and physician office space.

Construction on the new hospital will continue throughout next year and is expected to be complete in the fall of 2018. Although he said an exact date for when dozers will begin moving earth is not yet known, Carroll said survey work on the facility will begin “almost immediately.”

Last week’s groundbreaking was several years in the making. Glenn Tilson, who now serves on the UCMH community board and chaired the hospital’s Board of Control during the early phases of the MSHA acquisition, said July 31 marked the five-year anniversary of his signing a request for proposal. This RFP went out to both MSHA and Wellmont Health System to gauge each health care entity’s interest in acquiring UCMH and what each would bring to the table were it to welcome the hospital into its respective system.

Both MSHA and Wellmont responded to the RFP, and the UCMH Board of Control would eventually opt to accept MSHA’s proposal. After months of further discussion and review, Roland Bailey, who had taken the chairmanship of the UCMH Board of Control by that time, and then-MSHA CEO Dennis Vonderfecht on Nov. 1, 2013, signed the documents to make MSHA’s acquisition of the community hospital official.

“Several years ago, the leadership in Unicoi County made the decision to join Mountain States Health Alliance, and we made a commitment at that time that we’re going to make sure high-quality health care was available to the people in this community,” current MSHA President and CEO Alan Levine said prior to last week’s ceremony.

A caveat of the agreement was that MSHA was to construct a replacement UCMH within Erwin’s municipal limits. Following the acquisition, a visioning committee made up of hospital leaders and community stakeholders was formed, and this panel was tasked with leading the early planning phases of the project and developing the guiding principles for the new hospital. 

The purchase of the land for the new hospital was finalized in July 2015. The approximately 40 acres of property is located just off Interstate 26 near the Jackson Love Highway Exit.

“I think the piece of property is perfect,” Levine said. “It’s high visibility. It’s easily accessible. We’re just excited to be here today to be working with our friends in Unicoi County, to hold hands with the people here as we go forward together to develop a health care system that they can be proud of.”

“It’s absolutely gorgeous out here,” Dr. Joshua Puhr, an emergency physician at UCMH, said during the ceremony. “I couldn’t imagine a better place to build a hospital where our patients can come, be listened to, be treated and, hopefully, experience healing, as well.”

The final plan for the new facility was approved by the MSHA Board of Directors in February 2016. Earl Swensson was subsequently selected as the architect and Layton Construction as the contractor.

In December 2016, the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency granted a Certificate of Need to MSHA for the new UMCH, clearing the way for the health care system to proceed with the process of bringing a new UCMH to Unicoi County.

“Today is a great milestone for Unicoi County,” Levine said. “What we’re building here is a state-of-the-art new model where we’ll bring the services that are needed into the community here.”

Since MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH, which opened in early 1953, the health care system has made a significant investment in the local hospital, Levine said. At the time of the acquisition, UCMH was cashflow negative, Levine said, adding MSHA has funded more than $6 million of negative cashflow to ensure UCMH remained open.

“The hospital doesn’t make money,” he said. “It actually has negative cashflow, and Mountain States has been subsidizing those losses for three years now. We’ve believed historically in trying to keep access in this community, and for as long as Mountain States can do that, we want to do that. We obviously would prefer the hospital have positive cashflow, and hopefully some of the investments we’re making will help with that.

“The hospital today would not be open if we did not do what we did four years ago. It literally had no cashflow.”

Levine was quick to point out that the situation has been much more dire for rural hospitals across the country in recent years. He said since 2010, more than 70 rural hospitals across the U.S. have shuttered their doors.

“Because of the partnership with Mountain States, that has not been the story here,” Levine said. “The end of the story here is a whole lot better than what other communities have seen, including several communities here in Tennessee.”

Levine also said once the new hospital is built, MSHA will continue to invest heavily in the facility through the recruitment of “certain types of physicians and specialties so people can try to seek as much care locally as possible.”

“There are people here who go all the way to North Carolina, to Asheville, for their care,” Levine said. “We’d like to see that change, and we’d like to see people stay here in Tennessee instead of going to North Carolina, over the mountain.”

State Sen. Rusty Crowe and State Rep. John Holsclaw were among the scores present for the groundbreaking ceremony. Crowe read for those in attendance a portion of a proclamation from the state legislature commemorating the construction of the new UCMH.

“With its updated facilities, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital will continue to serve its community well into the future,” the proclamation read, in part. “Tennessee is fortunate to have such an excellent resource as Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, whose dedicated staff strives to exceed their patients’ expectations with the highest quality and most compassionate care possible.”

Carroll became emotional during last week’s ceremony as he announced that officials were just moments from breaking ground on the new UCMH. He said the facility will mean “so much to so many.”

“We’ve been waiting anxiously, and to see it finally here, it’s not just important for us as a hospital or us as Mountain States, it’s important for the community,” Carroll said. “I think you can see that with the show of support that we’ve gotten today.”

Levine said last week’s groundbreaking was about more than marking the project’s transition from the boardrooms to the physical work. He said the event demonstrates that MSHA delivers on its promises.

“The (MSHA Board of Directors), back years ago before I even came here, made a commitment to Unicoi County,” Levine said, “and a lot of people have asked us over the last four years, ‘Are you really going to do this? Are you really going to build the hospital?…Are you really going to do what you said you were going to do?’ I just want to be clear about something – if Mountain States Health Alliance makes a commitment, we’re going to keep that commitment, and that’s why we’re here today.

“We committed to this because we believe in Unicoi County.”