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Originally published: 2012-11-19 12:01:04
Last modified: 2012-11-19 12:01:04

Sale of High Country Health Systems nears completion

by Adam Orr

The sale of High Country Health Care Systems, a nonprofit home health and hospice care organization, is nearing completion, according to the Appalachian District Health Department's Director of Health Beth Lovette.


“The top company in the running ... is Medical Services of America,” Lovette told the Ashe County Board of Commissioners on Nov. 5. “I say in the running because like any deal it could fall apart and we would be looking at the second best deal.”


The Appalachian District Health Department owns 66.5 percent of High Country Health Care Systems that has provided healthcare services to Alleghany, Ashe and Watauga Counties for more than three decades. Ashe Memorial Hospital owns the remaining 33.5 percent of HCHCS.


ADHD has searched for potential buyers of the hospice provider since at least June of this year, when the agency announced public meetings to discuss the process. 


“After declining revenues over the last couple of years, we've pulled in a consultant and we're in the process of evaluating and planning to sell High Country Health Care Systems,” said Lovette. “Today all of the bids have already come in and they're on public display in the High Country Offices in Ashe and Watauga Counties and the Health Department in Alleghany County.


“It looks like they're a good company to work with,” she continued. “I have to commend the staff of High Country Health Care because they have been absolutely really good to work with and as positive about this big change in their lives. I also think they're looking forward to working with a larger, stable company.”


Lovette said if the deal remains attractive to all parties, she anticipates the board of health will take official action to approve the sale to Medical Service of America on Nov. 29.


“After that, there is some additional approval that has to go on by folks in Raleigh ... it's a very difficult process because we're a public entity and High Country is a nonprofit,” said Lovette. “We anticipate that the closing date for the sale will be no sooner than 30-60 days after Nov. 29 and could be much delayed.”

“It's through that (meeting) that we created the environmental health advisory committee,” said Lovette. “It's really a Watauga/Ashe Committee but it's met over here for five months and we'll meet a sixth time in November.”


In April, more than 70 local residents voiced their complaints about Appalachian Regional Health Department building inspectors and the permitting process during a public forum at the Ashe County Courthouse.


“We'll continue to look into things like staffing across the district and meeting the needs here in Ashe,” said Lovette. “We'll also be compiling a really good summary to share with you and Watauga County Commissioners about the changes that we've been able to make (since April's meeting).”


Lovette said 21 department employees work full time at the Ashe County Health Department supplemented by 11 additional employees who work across the three county district.


“While we do have only one environmental health employee stationed here in Ashe, when I did the math on pulling staff over to help with the increased applications, we have a little over one full time employee,” said Lovette.

Lovette also told commissioners there was a spike in water protection applications this past summer, likely a result of speculative land transfers.


“As best I can tell, this was caused by big developments changing hands over the summer,” said Lovette. “So when folks are selling or reselling, or selling (lots) contingent upon septic permits, those come into our office.

Lovette said, between 2009-2011 their office had never received more than 162 water protection applications. In the first nine months of 2012 alone, they received 268.


“The way we've survived over the summer is pulling staff willing to work overtime on Saturdays to spend times inside the subdivisions where they can really knock out a lot of applications in one day or over a couple of Saturdays instead of pulling them off day to day work,” said Lovette. “That's not ideal, and over time that becomes expensive.”