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What Virginia's approval of MSHA, Wellmont merger means for health care in SWVa.

What Virginia's approval of merger...

The two largest health systems in our region are on the homestretch to becoming one. This after clearing one of the last major hurdles.

On Monday afternoon, Virginia's health commissioner granted Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System approval to merge.

It's a process that's taken more than two years. In 2015, both health systems announced they would "better together." The two filed for approval to merge in Tennessee and Virginia.

After a lot of back-and-forth with both states and a series of public hearings, Tennessee was first to give its approval, in September.

In a letter sent, Monday afternoon, Virginia's health commissioner cited her reasons for approving the merger. She said as it stands, competition between Mountain States and Wellmont is failing to provide benefits to people in Southwest Virginia. So a merger would be better.

But there are several commitments, the two health systems must make when they become one.

Soon to be Ballad Health, Mountain States and Wellmont face a long list of recommendations they must follow in Virginia.

Among them: first, Ballad Health cannot mark itself as the exclusive network provider in contracts with insurance companies or private doctors. That means it must still compete with regional health providers.

Second, if a new hospital opens in Lee County and fails, Ballad must provide essential services.

"Things like emergency department services, certain physician services - things like that," Mountain States CEO Alan Levine further explained over the phone, Monday night.

The third point offers job security for some.

"For 2 years, we will not be terminating, without cause, any employee in any rural hospital," Levine said in a press conference in September. That applies in Tennessee too.

Fourth, Ballad must invest in Southwest Virginia. Over the next 10 years, it must spend at least $28 million on rural health services, $85 million on behavioral health services, and $75 million on population health improvement.

"If we merged with an out-of-market competitor, we would end up basically shipping about $50 million in capital out of the region," Wellmont board chairman Roger Leonard said, at a press conference in September. "So it's not just about jobs, it's about capital. And that capital is staying and being reinvested back in our health system."

Mountain States and Wellmont issued a joint-statement saying in part, "We are now intensely focused on the operational integration of the two systems." Over the phone, Levine confirmed the next step is for the board to review and accept Virginia's recommendations.

Then, they hope to close on the merger, early next year.

Next, the Federal Trade Commission gets 30 days to look at the deal, which it has opposed in the past. News 5 contacted an FTC spokesperson to try to get some insight into whether or not they'll give the merger the green light this time. And she said they have no comment.


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