KINGSPORT, Tenn. -

Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance are two healthcare companies in the region who have competed for years, but now there is a push from the business community to have the two companies merge.

The healthcare industry is one of the region's largest employers and a major player in the overall health of the local economy.

Now, its future is at a crossroads. Wellmont Health System announced it is seeking to partner with another healthcare company due to growing financial strains on the medical industry.

A field of six suitors has since been pared down to three - one described as regional, and two that are not. "It should be important to the entire region. We are the owners of these two health care systems, they belong to the community," says Scott Niswonger, a business owner and the namesake of the Niswonger Children's Hospital in Johnson City.

The fear among many people is if  Wellmont's board chooses an offer from a company outside of the region, the Tri-Cities will not only lose control, but also advanced services and jobs. "Our concern is the loss of jobs, loss of the corporate headquarters. That's a concern to the tune of 50 to 75 million dollars a year," said Kingpsort Mayor, Dennis Phillips.

This group is openly pushing for a Wellmont and Mountain States combination along with an enhanced research program through ETSU. "This is a generational change," says Niswonger.  "For either good or bad, good if we can bring them together."

"I do know the decisions that Wellmont will make in the coming months will impact ETSU,'" says Brian Nonland, ETSU's President.

One of the group's main objectives is for more transparency during this process, which is why they are asking those at the meeting to sign an online petition asking Wellmont to be more open about their discussions.

Some questioned how the plan does not lead to a monopoly and in the end higher prices. This group backs a government-controlled agreement that locks healthcare costs for 10 years.

The next step for the group is to bring the board of Wellmont and the board of Mountain States to talk about the issue.

Both Mountain States and Wellmont told News 5 that administrators and board members were not attending the meeting, but would have representatives in the audience.

Wellmont released a statement that says:

"Wellmont Health System’s board of directors, which has deep roots in this region and cares greatly about its well-being, takes its responsibility seriously. The work we've performed over the last year and the in-depth analysis to come is to make sure we choose the best path for our patients and our region.

We all share the same goal: We want a thriving health system that has everything it needs to be successful – not just today but for generations to come. The options before us are extraordinary, and we couldn't be more excited about Wellmont’s future and its positive impact on our region.

We are still in a process of listening and learning, and we have reached no conclusions. While Monday's forum was not our event, we felt it was important to be there to listen and learn.  Representatives of Wellmont attended and our board will study the information.  We did not want to risk an atmosphere of debate at the meeting, which is why our board and management team were not in attendance.  Because we have not drawn conclusions, we do not have a position to debate at this stage of the process.

We have upcoming meetings planned throughout our communities and our system and welcome the community to join us.  For those who are interested in joining us for one of those meetings, getting the latest information or submitting thoughts or questions, we encourage you to visit www.forwardwithvision.org."