A screenshot from missionfactchecker.org, a website launched by Mission Health System.

Health System rep: Users have generated 10,000 letters to WNC elected officials

The latest chapter in the Asheville-based Mission Health’s Certificate of Public Advantage saga is being written on a new website.

Launched on Feb. 23, missionfactchecker.org is billed as a site that gives the citizens of Western North Carolina a one-stop shop for health facts and figures for the region.

But it’s also enabled the hospital system to start a grassroots movement to oppose proposed legislative recommendations concerning the future of Mission Health System.

“There is a feature on the missionfactchecker.org website where a person can send a letter to all members of the CON Select Committee to voice their disapproval of the recommendations,” said Rowena Buffett Timms, senior vice president of government and community relations at Mission Health, who is referring to the House Select Committee on the Certificate of Need Process and Related Hospital Issues. “It’s being utilized to the tune of almost 1,000 letters being sent to members of the committee thus far.”

The website also allows visitors to contact local representatives, and Buffett Timms said nearly 10,000 letters have been sent to officials serving Western North Carolina.

The website comes on the heels of last month’s House Select Committee on the Certificate of Need Process and Related Hospital Issues meeting, which made five recommendations regarding Mission Health’s expansion in WNC and the hospital’s Certificate of Public Advantage, also known as COPA. [Read: “Lawmakers delay decision on Mission’s operating agreement.”]

The recommendations included a buffer zone of 10 miles that would limit Mission from building near other health-care providers and a stricter physician employment cap. The five suggestions will be discussed at a follow-up meeting on Thursday, April 19.

Created in 1995, the COPA — which is the only in the state, and one of two in the country — allowed Mission to merge with St. Joseph’s Hospital, making the combined Mission Hospital System the only acute care hospital in Buncombe County by 1998. The COPA protected Mission from antitrust laws that would have labeled the nonprofit a monopoly, and, in exchange, Mission agreed to regular government supervision.

The COPA was renewed in 2005, but the certificate was called into question last fall when Mission announced plans to build a medical facility in Fletcher, just four miles away from Park Ridge Hospital in Henderson County. Critics say the certificate has allowed Mission to monopolize health care in Buncombe and Henderson counties with little oversight.

Graham Fields, the assistant to the president of Park Ridge, said that the state has repeatedly ignored its duties to monitor Mission’s growth. He currently serves as the spokesperson for a group called the WNC Community Health Care Initiative, which maintains its own website, wncchoice.com.

“We’ve heard so much discussion in the press that this is a debate or a turf battle, but that dilutes the enormity of the situation,” Fields said. “The reality is our group has come together to approach the state and explore how can this COPA be updated to better protect patient choice. In the March meeting, state officials all but acknowledged that (the state) has not really been monitoring the COPA.”

Fields said he recognizes that Mission is important to WNC (it’s Buncombe County’s largest employer with 8,000 jobs), but said its website uses fear and distraction to take away from the real issues surrounding the COPA.

“The fear is that jobs will be lost, you won’t have the NICU or a helicopter,” Fields said. “They don’t want to discuss the facts, or the big issue, which is, has the state monitored the COPA? Just because you’re an excellent hospital doesn’t allow you to do whatever you want.”

Local representatives said they’ve heard an outpouring of pro-Mission sentiment from constituents.

“We’ve received many e-mails and the general tenor is that the recommendations offered at the last meeting are detrimental to the how Mission can operate moving forward,” said Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe. Moffitt, who called the recommendations “draconian,” said he was in constant contact with CON Select Committee members to share the view of WNC voters.

No WNC representatives serve on the CON committee, a fact that Buffett Timms said troubles Mission.

“It is a big concern to us that our Western North Carolina delegation is not represented on a committee that is issuing recommendations that would eliminate jobs and decrease healthcare quality and choices in our region,” she said.

But the website, she said, seems to be getting the region’s message to the Select Committee.

“In our meetings last week at the Statehouse, the representatives were surprised and overwhelmed by the groundswell of support,” Buffett Timms said.

Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, also said that in addition to e-mails, she’s received hundreds of “snail-mail” letters and voicemail messages.

“The message is loud and clear, and it’s that Mission is an asset to the region,” Fisher said. “I’m hoping the Select CON committee members will see that if they take these recommendations forward, it will handicap the Mission hospital system in a way that’s unlike anything in the states.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed comments made by Mission Health. They were from Rowena Buffett Timms, senior vice president of government and community relations at Mission Health.

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Stephanie Soucheray is a contributing reporter for Wmforo. Contact her at [email protected].

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