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Southwest Virginia community perseveres, Ballad Health opens new Lee County Community Hospital
Despite wave of rural hospital closures, and COVID-19 pandemic, Ballad Health invests $20 million in rural healthcare
Ballad Health – the only healthcare system of its kind in the nation – is again rewriting the story of modern healthcare, opening a rural hospital for the second time in less than three years.
Lee County Community Hospital, a 10-bed modern medical facility serving rural Pennington Gap and its surrounding communities in Southwest Virginia and Southeast Kentucky, officially opened its doors to the public on Thursday, July 1. But the story of America’s newest rural hospital is more than the construction of a new facility – it’s a testament to the perseverance of a community and a health system’s unwavering commitment to rural healthcare availability and access.
“More than 130 rural hospitals in the United States have closed in the last 10 years, and most of their stories ended with that,” said Ballad Health Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine. “This triumphant chapter in Lee County is only possible because its community did not accept that outcome, and they sought a partner who could make a vision for healthcare in this rural area a reality.
“That a community fought to bring back its hospital, and Ballad Health is able to make it more up-to-date and ready to serve its community, is really something special, and it’s something we hope will serve as a model well beyond the Appalachian Highlands.”
Now open and serving patients, the new Lee County Community Hospital has been specifically designed to meet the needs of its community, with acute and emergency services available 24/7, diagnostic radiology and lab services, outpatient cardiology and additional rotating clinics for specialty care and telehealth access.
“The Lee County community had a passionate, strong voice in every step of this new hospital’s development, so it was created to meet their specific needs,” said Mitch Kennedy, administrator for the new hospital. “It’s wonderful to unveil this hospital today – it’s everything we’ve promised, and it shows Ballad Health is all-in in Lee County, and we’re here to stay.
“Our team members, physicians and leaders are honored and excited to open this great new hospital for our community members, and we look forward to serving our patients and their families for many years to come.”
The journey to Lee County Community Hospital
Lee County Community Hospital’s predecessor, Lee Regional Medical Center, shuttered its doors in 2013, following Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement cuts and a lack of consistent physician coverage.
It’s a familiar story for many rural hospitals. Since 2010, more than 130 rural hospitals have closed in the United States, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, and 181 rural hospitals have closed since January 2005. Twenty-three of those hospitals are closed or converted facilities in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky – such as Lee Regional Medical Center. Studies have shown rural communities that lose their hospitals struggle with reductions in access to physicians, healthcare services and in overall health status.
The Lee County community, however, refused to let their hospital remain closed.
“Many people never thought this day would come,” said Ronnie Montgomery, chairman of the Lee County Hospital Authority. “But here we stand – celebrating the re-opening of a closed rural hospital, celebrating the power of determination and persistence and celebrating the future of Lee County as we enter a new era.
“Today we acknowledge that the padlock placed on this building October 1, 2013, had a key – and we worked until we found it.”
In January 2019, the Ballad Health Board of Directors voted unanimously to start negotiating with the Lee County Hospital Authority to reopen the rural Southwest Virginia hospital. On Sept. 23, 2019, the hospital authority, in turn, voted unanimously to approve the definitive agreement with Ballad Health.
In the two years since, Ballad Health worked in conjunction with the 20-member hospital authority to ensure the new hospital met the expectations and needs of the community.
“Because of the merger, we’ve not only kept our existing rural hospitals open, but we now have the ability to do things like reopen the hospital in Lee County,” Levine said at the time. “This is one of the many explicit benefits of our merger. We have the capacity to sustain our rural hospitals through the elimination of costly duplicative services and administrative overhead.”
“I remain impressed by the commitment of Ballad Health to reopen our hospital and return important healthcare services to our community,” Montgomery said when the hospital authority and Ballad Health submitted an application to designate the new hospital as a Critical Access Hospital, which was submitted on Oct. 22, 2019.
“I thank everyone at Ballad Health for the hard work they’ve put into getting this application submitted, and I look forward to helping them in any way I can. This designation is extremely important to the success and viability of Lee County Community Hospital.”
Critical Access Hospital is a designation created by Congress to reduce financial vulnerability of rural hospitals and improve access to healthcare by keeping essential services in rural communities. To qualify as a Critical Access Hospital, Lee County Community Hospital must:
- Have 25 or fewer acute care inpatient beds
- Be more than a 35-mile drive from another hospital or be more than a 15-mile drive from another hospital in an area with mountain terrain or only secondary roads
- Maintain an annual average length of stay of 96 hours or less for acute care patients
- Provide 24/7 emergency care services
If approved for critical access designation, Lee County Community Hospital will make Ballad Health’s fourth critical access hospital, joining Johnson County Community Hospital in Mountain City, Tennessee; Dickenson Community Hospital in Clintwood, Virginia; and Unicoi County Hospital in Erwin, Tennessee, which opened in October 2018.
“If you are a patient at Lee County Community Hospital, you can expect to receive the same excellent standard of care you would receive if you were at any of our other community hospitals or tertiary medical centers,” said Keith Wilson, a member of the Ballad Health Board of Directors.
“As one system, we have the means to tackle some of the challenges that come with providing healthcare in rural, spread-out communities, and we’re able to share resources across communities and get everyone the quality healthcare that they deserve. This facility has the support of an entire network of hospitals – it does not stand alone.
“Together, we are all stronger, and that is the idea behind Ballad Health.”
A model of modern healthcare
Lee County Community Hospital will provide a continuum of care between the new facility and the network of care services provided throughout Ballad Health. The new integrated model will allow for patients to be guided over time through a comprehensive array of health services, including, but not limited to:
- Emergency room stabilization for patients
- Emergent obstetrical care
- Outpatient diagnostics needed to support emergency stabilization of patients
- Rotating clinic or telemedicine access to specialty care consultants
- Helicopter or high-acuity transport to tertiary care centers
- Mobile health services for preventive screenings
- Primary care services, including lab services
- Physical therapy rehabilitation services
- Care coordination service
- Access to a behavioral health network of services through a coordinated system of care
- Community-based education, prevention and disease management services for prioritized programs of emphasis
“For seven years, we’ve worked to bring the healthcare services people need back to where they need them the most – close to home,” said Dr. Jill Couch, a practicing internal medicine physician in Jonesville, Virginia, who also serves on the Lee County Hospital Authority.
“Our community members no longer need to travel half an hour or more to seek life-saving emergency care, and they won’t have to travel hours for consultations with specialty physicians – thanks to telehealth, they can receive that care right here in Lee County.
“The new Lee County Community Hospital is a beacon and exemplar for rural healthcare, and it’s going to strengthen our entire community.”
Lee County Community Hospital also joins the rest of Ballad Health’s hospitals, outpatient centers and physician practices on the Epic electronic health records platform, which provides patients and their care teams unprecedented new options for access, care and security of patient records. The Epic platform means that whether patients seek care in Lee County, or from any Ballad Health facility throughout the Appalachian Highlands, their records will be available to them and to their provider – bolstering integrated care that leads to better outcomes and lower costs.
As part of Ballad Health, Lee County Community Hospital provides seamless access to the health system’s other facilities and services. Ballad Health has launched numerous system- and region-wide programs to enhance health in the Appalachian Highlands, including the Ballad Health Niswonger Children’s Network, Strong Starts and the Appalachian Highlands Care Network.
“From the beginning, we have not been interested in opening a hospital that would only treat people for incidental illnesses and injuries, release them and be uninvolved in their health after that point,” said Lindy White, president of Ballad Health’s Northwest Market, which includes Lee County.
“Lee County Community Hospital, as the newest member of our system, is joining a proud legacy of hospitals, team members and physicians who remain engaged in the overall health and well-being of their communities. It’s also now part of a broader system of care, so patients have access to a vast array of healthcare services through additional tertiary and acute care hospitals – so our patients don’t have to leave the Appalachian Highlands for the advanced healthcare they might need.
“This new hospital is one mechanism through which we provide care, but it’s also an entry point to a range of health and wellness services offered through Ballad Health as we reach into our communities, address the numerous determinants of health and work to create a brighter future in the Appalachian Highlands.”
Support from state and national leaders
The success of Lee County Community Hospital would not have been possible without tremendous governmental and legislative support.
Elected leaders from the Commonwealth of Virginia – local, statewide and national representation alike – have continually demonstrated their enthusiasm for the new facility. From approvals in the Cooperative Agreement that governs Ballad Health in Virginia, to the active support to approve Lee County Community Hospital as a Critical Access Hospital, cooperation and coordination with legislative and executive leaders in the Commonwealth has been paramount.
U.S. Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia
“Back in 2013, after the hospital closed its doors, this community didn’t give up. In fact, we worked hard for years to get it back up and running to make sure Virginians had access to the health care they need when they need it. Today, I’m proud to join Ballad Health, and the community, as we celebrate the reopening of this critical facility that will help save lives.”
U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith of Virginia
“The reopening of Lee County Community Hospital is an important event for the people of the county. It is also a tribute to the persistence and dedication of all who helped make it happen. The challenges facing rural hospitals are no secret, but it has been inspiring to be part of the effort in the community to overcome them and reopen this facility.”
Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia
“Every Virginian, in every community across the Commonwealth, deserves access to quality, affordable health care – and that means being able to reach a hospital. Thanks to Ballad Health stepping up to reopen a shuttered rural hospital, and the perseverance of the people of Lee County, this community will be stronger, safer and healthier.”
Sen. Todd Pillion, DDS, of Virginia’s 40th District
“While many rural communities across the nation lose their hospitals, Lee County is ground zero for something special. This is one of the only places in America where a rural hospital is reopening. As a native of Lee County, I’m proud to be part of the coalition to restore essential health services in our community and improve the quality of life for our families. This has been a long process with many ups and downs, but thanks to the tenacity of so many stakeholders, we can now celebrate this milestone achievement for rural healthcare in Southwest Virginia.”
Del. Terry Kilgore of Virginia’s 1st District
“It is not every day that a hospital opens in rural America. It has been a long eight years since Lee Regional Medical Center closed. Shortly after the closure of the hospital, my legislation enabled the creation of the Lee County Hospital Authority. I am proud of all the work that has been put in by local, state, and federal leaders as well as Ballad Health’s leadership in order for us to be here today. Today is a great day for Lee County.”
Lee County Community Hospital is located at 127 Healthcare Drive, Pennington Gap, Virginia. Learn more about Lee County Community Hospital