Conscious Conversation, a group focused on galvanizing the general public around issues of community and economic development, held a contentious community forum on the future of Nashville General Hospital. The forum was hosted in partnership with the Nashville Metro Council Minority Caucus, The Equity Alliance and SEIU Local 205 on Thursday, January 11, at First Baptist Church. Panelists for the event were Dr. Joseph Webb, CEO, Nashville General Hospital; Dr. Jan Brandes, Neurologist, Chair, Metro Nashville Hospital Authority; Tanaka Vercher, District 28 Metro Council Member, Budget & Finance Committee Chair; Brenda Gilmore, Tennessee House of Representatives, District 54 State Representative; and Patrick Johnson, Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Meharry Medical College.
The meeting was held in response to widespread community concerns of Mayor Megan Barry’s proposal to eliminate in-patient care at Metro Nashville General Hospital. Just prior to the Mayor’s announcement, Meharry Medical College announced that it had created create a new partnership with HCA’s TriStar Southern Hills to serve as a training ground for its students, essentially replacing the role of General Hospital.
“Since its formation in 1890, known then as City Hospital, Nashville General Hospital has been a main provider of healthcare for under-represented and under-served communities,” said moderator Isaac Addae, Assistant Professor at Tennessee State University. “A merger with Meharry Hubbard Hospital in 1998 led General Hospital to move from Hermitage Avenue to its current location on the campus of Meharry Medical College.”
“Many concerned citizens have taken opposing views on the Mayor’s proposal, and we are hosting this event so that the community can be informed about the hospital’s future,” said Addae.
Nashville General’s CEO, DR. Joseph Webb educated attendees on the need to keep Nashville General open, explaining that it is a safety net hospital.
“Many don’t know that 40% of our patients are self insured,” said Webb.
The term “self insured” is a euphemism for those who do not have the ability to pay.
“What that means is that we contribute over 57 million dollars to uncompensated care, which is over 60% of our budget.”
“If you look at the demographics of our hospital 53% of our patients and 47% of our staff are African-American. Our goal is to continue to work with stakeholders and grow the volume of the hospital so we can offset the burden to the city.”
After Web, Representative Brenda Gil-more spoke, “We all have a responsibility to make sure that those who do not have insurance, those who are underinsured, the indigent…that we make provision for them. Tennessee is the 48th unhealthiest state, so I think we need to do everything that we can to make sure that we’re keeping our citizens healthy.”
Patrick Johnson, Senior Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Meharry Medical College said that he felt that there were a lot of questions that have arisen since November, and that he was present to help answer them on behalf of Meharry.
Council Lady Tanaka Vercher criticized Meh-arry and the Mayor for a lack of transparency. “We really got here because of a lack of transparency. There was an announcement made and the council was not aware.”
Vercher chastised Meharry for not revealing the details of its agreement with HCA.
“You can’t hide behind being a private entity if you’re going to meet at this table and be part of the solution,” she said. “Be transparent; be forthcoming, because the lack of such is what got us at this point.”
Gilmore said that much of the problem with Nashville General rested with the fact that it has never been prop-erly funded.
“We’ve had this same conversation for years. There has never been a willingness of some people in the administration to fully fund General Hospital. We provide as taxpayers subsidies for just about every entity you can think of,” said Gilmore as she proceeded to name the Municipal Auditorium, Soccer Stadium, Music City Convention Center and luxury hotel incentives.
“Underfunding the hospital affects every-one,” said Meharry V.P. Johnson. “We have been an advocate for Dr. Webb’s administration. We have always been allied together.”
Johnson said that when the 50 million Nashville General needed became only 35 million that would be funded, Meharry was told by the Hospital Authority that they would have to absorb some of the shortfall, and make devastating budget cuts that would have impacted their accreditation.
“We would not have been able to operate as a medical college,” said Johnson. “Meharry employs 800 people. We are a huge impact in Nashville’s community. Our economic impact to this city is 679 million dollars. We are the second Black employer in this city behind TSU.”
“That was a terrible day at Meharry. Everyone was nervous. So we did what we had to do. We wanted to make sure students had somewhere to go. So without anyone knowing we began begging and pleading for someone to help us and partner with us. The only one who answered the call was HCA.”
“This was months before the mayor’s announcement. There wasn’t an elected official in this room who helped us – not one.” When challenged on the statement, Johnson admitted that he did not ask the council for help.
The end of the forum brought a conciliatory note to the evening.
Attendees were encouraged to patronize General Hospital. “If we value this institution it has to be more than words, we need to go use their services,” said Vercher. Dr. Webb said that, Meharry, General Hospital, and the city all have something in common, “We have a common goal; that is the population that we care for. I think we can become closer together and come to some kind of resolution.”
“Have faith, have faith in us that we will do what is needed to be done,” said Patrick Johnson. “We have always had partnerships and collaborations and we will continue to do so. Just have faith in the process.”
Just before the meeting Mayor Megan Barry released a letter to the Metro Council walking back on her proposal and calling for a “reset”.
“While there seems to be general consensus around the idea of a new model being needed at the hospital going forward, there is no consensus on what the next steps should be and how to move forward in a positive and constructive manner,” wrote Barry.
Council Lady Vercher thanked the Vice Mayor for his leadership and the Mayor for being open to a pause because it “gives us an opportunity to bring the right stakeholders into the room for us to move forward ensuring our city hospital is sustainable and successful.”