KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell is asking the Blount County Board of Commissioners to negotiate a management agreement between the University of Tennessee Medical Center and Blount Memorial Hospital, according to a press release from the mayor's office.
In this agreement, UTMC would manage and operate Blount Memorial to "better serve" Blount County citizens, while keeping county ownership and local board oversight on the hospital, the release said.
"Having a hospital here in Blount County is very important to the health and well-being of our citizens. Every action I have taken during my time as Mayor and especially these last few months has been all for the benefit of our citizens and of our hospital. In recent weeks, I have worked with and made recommendations to the Blount County Board of Commissioners to improve and/or replace Blount Memorial Hospital’s Board of Directors to gain fresh perspectives. Those efforts have been thwarted by the Board and Hospital management," Mitchell said.
In November 2022, Mitchell sent a letter to the Blount Memorial Hospital Board of Directors, asking for the three board members appointed by Blount County to be removed, citing "grave" concerns he had with the hospital's operation.
The mayor's letter argued Blount County owned all of Blount Memorial Hospital's assets and said he believed the non-profit corporation could not sell the property.
In a lawsuit filed in Blount County Chancery Court, lawyers for Blount Memorial Hospital, Inc. argued the non-profit corporation bought the property with revenues from the hospital and so they own it, not the county.
Blount County possesses "no authority over BMH's operation and management, other than the power to appoint directors," the lawsuit said.
In a response, filed in Chancery Court on Feb. 7, lawyers for Blount County said "assets are owned for and on behalf of Blount County, Tennessee." Those lawyers argued Blount County bought the hospital and its property and cited Blount Memorial Hospital's use of bond debt issued by Blount County to fund its operations.
Mitchell said it's become "obvious" to him that the management of the hospital, along with the Board restructuring, needs to be addressed as quickly as possible.
Mitchell said he wants to improve the financial stability of the hospital, ensure continued access to quality healthcare for Blount County citizens, restore a workplace where medical staff and employees are proud to work and make use of the unutilized services and patient space in Blount Memorial, according to the release.
Mitchell believes UTMC and Blount County share important common ground.
"UTMC brings experience and expertise which I am confident can help with the current situation at Blount Memorial Hospital. With approval and guidance from the County Commission, I would like to explore a management agreement that would ensure the success of Blount Memorial Hospital, keep it an asset to the citizens of Blount County, ensure they have access to existing and future high-quality health services, and provide the current medical staff and employees a desirable place to practice and work," Mitchell said.
Every detail of any management agreement would be placed in writing for the full consideration of the Blount County Board of Commissioners and for full review and transparency for Blount County citizens, according to the release.
"The reputation and survival of Blount Memorial Hospital depends upon the decisions we make in the next few weeks," Mitchell said.
Mitchell stressed that any concerns he's expressed are not directed toward employees and medical staff at the hospital and that it will remain Blount Memorial Hospital.
We've reached out to Blount Memorial for comment. A statement from its CEO is available below.
Today, as many of you were, I was surprised, saddened and angered to learn the County Mayor, Ed Mitchell, apparently reached out to the University of Tennessee Medical Center to begin conversations to arrange for a management agreement of OUR Hospital system, Blount Memorial Hospital, Inc. Neither Mayor Mitchell nor UT Medical Center reached out to have any discussion with any executive or board member to talk about this, and we found out through a news cycle update early this afternoon.
Further, I was more disappointed to read Mayor Mitchell’s full press release and his characterization of OUR Hospital system. Frankly, all of you deserve to be treated with a great deal of respect for your integrity and the work you do. It appears that 75 years of honorable service to this community, including three years of leading our community through a global pandemic, means nothing to Mayor Mitchell.
Additionally, it is no secret that Blount Memorial is working a strategic plan to address the lingering financial and operational challenges it has, and many of you have heard my updates on its progress. We have more work to do, but it would be more helpful if the county was supporting this process, which they called for, instead of blocking it every step of the way. Their interference has been a direct challenge to the things this process is trying to accomplish.
While it would be improper for me to elaborate or comment on the reasons why, we do not believe that the County has the authority to contract with the University of Tennessee Medical Center for a management agreement for Blount Memorial Hospital, Inc. It is interesting, though, that Mayor Mitchell has reached out to the University of Tennessee Medical Center, which suffered significant losses of its own.
UT Medical Center also issued a statement Wednesday, saying it is talking with the mayor on "potential opportunities" to help Blount Memorial:
“At the request of the Blount County Mayor’s office, The University of Tennessee Medical Center (UTMC) has engaged in a discussion with Mayor Ed Mitchell on potential opportunities to assist Blount Memorial Hospital with its challenges while continuing to provide health care services to benefit the patients and communities the organization serves. Consistent with UTMC’s culture of transparency and collaboration, if given the opportunity, UTMC will work with the medical staff, team members, the community, and its leaders to help ensure Blount Memorial Hospital will continue to meet Blount County’s health care needs.”
A county attorney is expected to defend against the lawsuit at its next meeting on Feb. 16.