Tennessee Offers This Hospital Monopoly an A Grade — Even When It Reports Failure

Brett Kelman

A Tennessee company that’s supposed to carry accountable and grade the nation’s largest state-sanctioned hospital monopoly awards full credit score on dozens of quality-of-care measurements so long as it experiences any worth — no matter how its hospitals truly carry out.

Ballad Health, a 20-hospital system in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, has obtained A grades and an annual stamp of approval from the Tennessee Department of Health. This has occurred as Ballad hospitals constantly fall short of performance targets established by the state, in response to well being division paperwork.

Because the state’s scoring rubric largely ignores the hospitals’ efficiency, solely 5% of Ballad’s last rating relies on precise high quality of care, and Ballad has suffered no penalty for failing to fulfill the state’s targets in about 50 areas — together with surgical procedure problems, emergency room pace, and affected person satisfaction.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” mentioned Ron Allgood, 75, of Kingsport, Tennessee, who mentioned he had a coronary heart assault in a Ballad ER in 2022 after ready for 3 hours with chest pains. “It seems that nobody listens to the patients.”

Ballad Health was created six years in the past after Tennessee and Virginia lawmakers waived federal anti-monopoly legal guidelines so two competing hospital corporations might merge. The monopoly settlement established two high quality measures to match Ballad’s care towards the state’s baseline expectations: about 17 “target” measures, on which hospitals are anticipated to enhance and their efficiency components into their grade; and greater than 50 “monitoring” measures, which Ballad should report, however how the hospitals carry out on them isn’t factored into Ballad’s grade.

Ballad has failed to fulfill the baseline values on 75% or extra of all high quality measures lately — and a few should not even shut — in response to experiences the corporate has submitted to the well being division.

Since the merger, Ballad has change into the one possibility for hospital care for many of about 1.1 million residents in a 29-county area on the nexus of Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Critics are vocal. Protesters rallied exterior a Ballad hospital for months. For years, longtime residents like Allgood have alleged Ballad’s management has diminished the hospitals they’ve relied on their total lives.

“It’s a shadow of the hospital we used to have,” Allgood mentioned.

And but, yearly because the merger, the Tennessee well being division has reported that the advantages of the hospital merger outweigh the dangers of a monopoly, and that Ballad “continues to provide a Public Advantage.” Tennessee has additionally given Ballad an A grade in yearly however two, when the scoring system was suspended as a result of covid-19 pandemic and no grade issued.

The division’s latest report, launched this month, awarded Ballad 93.6 of 100 potential factors, together with 15 factors only for reporting the monitoring measures. If Tennessee rescored Ballad primarily based on its efficiency, its rating would drop from 93.6 to about 79.7, primarily based on the scoring rubric described in well being division paperwork. Tennessee considers scores of 85 or increased to be “satisfactory,” the paperwork state.

Larry Fitzgerald, who monitored Ballad for the Tennessee authorities earlier than retiring this 12 months, mentioned it was apparent the state’s scoring rubric ought to be modified.

Fitzgerald likened Ballad to a pupil getting 15 free factors on a check for writing any reply.

“Do I think Ballad should be required to show improvement on those measures? Yes, absolutely,” Fitzgerald mentioned. “I think any human being you spoke with would give the same answer.”

Ballad Health declined to remark. Tennessee Department of Health spokesperson Dean Flener declined an interview request and directed all questions on Ballad to the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, which additionally has a job in regulating the monopoly. Amy Wilhite, a spokesperson for the AG’s workplace, directed these questions again to the well being division and supplied paperwork exhibiting it is the agency responsible for the way Ballad is scored.

The Virginia Department of Health, which can be alleged to carry out “active supervision” of Ballad as a part of the monopoly settlement, has fallen a number of years not on time. Its most up-to-date evaluation of the corporate was for fiscal 12 months 2020, when it discovered that the advantages of the monopoly “outweigh the disadvantages.” Erik Bodin, a Virginia official who oversees the settlement, mentioned more moderen experiences should not but able to be launched.

Ballad Health was fashioned in 2018 after state officers accepted the nation’s largest so-called Certificate of Public Advantage, or COPA, settlement, permitting a merger of the Tri-Cities area’s solely two hospital methods — Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System. Nationwide, COPAs have been utilized in about 10 hospital mergers over the previous three a long time, however none has concerned as many hospitals as Ballad’s.

The Federal Trade Commission has warned that hospital monopolies result in elevated costs and decreased high quality of care. To offset the perils of Ballad’s monopoly, officers required the brand new firm to conform to extra strong regulation by state well being officers and a protracted record of particular circumstances, together with the state’s quality-of-care measurements.

Ballad failed to fulfill the baseline on about 80% of these high quality measures from July 2021 to June 2022, in response to a report the corporate submitted to the well being division. The following 12 months, Ballad fell quick on about 75% of the standard measures, and a few bought dramatically worse, one other firm report reveals.

For instance, the median time Ballad sufferers spend within the ER earlier than being admitted to the hospital has risen every year and is now nearly 11 hours, in response to the newest Ballad report. That’s greater than thrice what it was when the monopoly started, and greater than 2.5 occasions the state baseline.

And but Ballad’s grade isn’t lowered by the dearth of pace in its ERs.

Fitzgerald, Tennessee’s former Ballad monitor, who beforehand served as an govt within the University of Virginia Health System, mentioned a hospital firm with rivals would have extra cause than Ballad to enhance its ER speeds.

“When I was at UVA, we monitored this stuff passionately because — and I think this is the key point here — we had competition,” Fitzgerald mentioned. “And if we didn’t score well, the competition took advantage.”

Midwest correspondent Samantha Liss contributed to this report.

KFF Health News is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about well being points and is without doubt one of the core working packages at KFF—an unbiased supply of well being coverage analysis, polling, and journalism. Learn extra about KFF.


This story could be republished at no cost (details).

Most Popular

To Top