ROGERSVILLE — Ongoing concerns over what a local resident called the “downgrading or closing” of essential medical services as a result of the merger of two healthcare hospital giants, a multi-county public meeting has been called to bring together elected officials and citizens of several northeast Tennessee counties to discuss the possibility of establishing a ‘Hospital Authority’ that would “oversee and manage how health care is delivered to all citizens” in the region.

That meeting — which is open to anyone wishing to attend — is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, at 6 p.m. in the community meeting room of Holston Electric Cooperative, in Rogersville.

Invited are elected and appointed officials and concerned citizens of Sullivan, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins and other counties/cities where Ballad Health operates or provides healthcare services.

Gary Frady and Cathy Christian, who were recognized at the Nov. 25, 2019 meeting of the Hawkins Co. Commission by Commissioner Hannah Speaks, spoke about Ballad Health’s “downgrading” Holston Valley Hospital’s NICU and Level 1 Trauma Center and closing its Cancer Infusion Center at Allandale, among other concerns.

“Some months ago I stood before this board and asked you to pass a resolution opposing Ballad Health’s plans,” Frady said, in regard to those actions by the healthcare provider. “I am proud to say that this (Hawkins County) board of commissioners stepped up and unanimously passed resolutions opposing all three plans. Unfortunately Ballad Health, being the medical monopoly that they are, callously ignored the will of the people and shoved their changes down our collective throats. All three services were downgraded or closed to the detriment of the citizens in this county as well as the entire region.”

In spite of these setbacks, Frady said, a group of citizens called the “Rally For The Valley” group “has continued to engage in a peaceful protest outside Holston Valley Hospital” in Kingsport.

Ballad also operates hospitals in both Hawkins and Hancock counties.

“This peaceful protest group has manned it’s protest site 24/7 for the past 208 consecutive days,” Frady said. “We have actively engaged our federal, state, and local elected officials seeking redress for the harm Ballad Health has unleashed on the citizens of our region — a region, by the way, that is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey and encompasses approximately 1.2 million people.

“Despite presenting clear, convincing, and verifiable evidence that the disadvantages resulting from the COPA far outweigh any advantages resulting from a reduction in competition, the State oversight authorities have failed to discharge their lawful duties in holding Ballad Health accountable for their monopolistic practices,” Frady continued, reading from prepared remarks. “In fact they have become complicit in ensuring that Ballad Health can exercise its monopolistic muscle as they please and often to the detriment of the citizens of our region.”

Frady also alleged that citizens’ “exercise of our Constitutional rights of free speech and peaceful assembly has often come under attack”.

“Our group and especially our leader, Dani Cook, has become the lightning rod for vicious, slanderous, and threatening e-mails, letters, and social media attacks disparaging the sincerity of our motivations and actions,” he told the Commission. “I’m sure that all of you are aware that this past Tuesday (Nov. 19), the Kingsport BMA voted on and passed on second and final reading a city ordinance specifically designed to evict us from a strip of grass on the public right-of-way which we have occupied since May of this year. As it currently stands, unless something drastically changes, we must vacate our spot by Friday (Nov. 29) of this week or face fines.”

Frady also charged that “Ballad Health has also attempted to have us removed from our current location”.

“Recently, the Head of Security for Ballad Health filed felony charges, that’s right, felony criminal charges, that we had killed the grass where we are assembled and that we had dug ‘ditches’ to stop water runoff from the sidewalks from entering our protest site. Both charges were investigated by the KPD and subsequently ruled to be without foundation or merit,” Frady said. “We have been drenched at four o’clock in the morning by the ‘accidental’ initiation of the sprinkler systems at our protest site. We have been accused of impeding traffic both on the roadway and the sidewalks. Yet when we go to the KPD to get copies of the complaints, we are told that no such complaints have been filed. We have been maligned and misrepresented by the local newspaper while being denied the opportunity to rebut these misrepresentations in print or via letters to the editor.”

(PUB. NOTE: Frady made it clear to this newspaper after the meeting that he was not referring to The Rogersville Review or The Hancock Co. Eagle.)

“I could go on, but I believe you get the picture,” Frady said in addressing the county’s governing board. These are the kind of things that constitute a concerted effort to suppress the First Amendment rights of our peaceful protestors.”

Frady said that he came to ask the board to, “once again step up and assist us in our fight to preserve reasonable access to quality health care at affordable prices” in the region.

“The resolution we are seeking would authorize public hearings on the matter of establishing a Hospital Authority that will oversee and manage how health care is delivered to all citizens affected by the Ballad Health monopoly,” Frady said. “It is abundantly clear to those of us involved in the peaceful protest against the Ballad Health that this is the last avenue left open to the people if they are to have any redress for legitimate grievances arising out of Ballad Health’s exercise of their monopolistic muscle.”

Frady said that before the local commission could consider any resolution, “both the commissioners and the citizens must inform themselves of the requirements necessary for establishment of a Hospital Authority”.

In order to “expedite the learning curve for both groups”, Frady announced the upcoming meeting, “for the express purpose of exploring the requirements that must be met in order to establish a Hospital Authority for our region”.

Each commissioner, he said, would be receiving an invitation to attend, as would officials in other counties as applicable.

“Also, it is our intent to issue a public notice inviting all interested citizens to attend as well,” Frady said. “If there are others that you feel need to attend this meeting, by all means invite them. Our goal is to involve as many citizens and elected officials as would like to participate.”

He emphasized the importance that commissioners attend the meeting.

“If the citizens of this region are to have a fair shot at accessing quality health care at affordable costs, the establishment of a Hospital Authority appears to be the only reasonable way that that can happen,” he said.

“I live in Church Hill and I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you guys for stepping up,” Christian said to the board, adding that she is one of the volunteers who has slept outside of the Holston Valley hospital for 208 days.

A substantial number of the “core group” involved with “Rally for the Valley” are from Hawkins County, she said, and several were in attendance at the Monday evening meeting.