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Western counties celebrate hospital sale

fr hospitalsA visiting team from LifePoint Hospital network made the rounds to their newly acquired hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties over the past week. They pledged to roll up their sleeves and get to work fulfilling the promises made when courting the community hospitals here to join their national hospital network with a growing presence in North Carolina.

The historic sale of the locally owned, independent hospitals this month may be the end of an era, but selling to LifePoint was determined to be the best way forward following a decade of growing uncertainty, heightened competition and challenging financial times that now define the healthcare landscape, making it difficult for small community hospitals to thrive on their own.

Receptions at each of the three hospitals applauded Duke LifePoint, a subsidiary of LifePoint, for offering a new trajectory of growth.


Hundreds turn out to celebrate Haywood Regional’s new owners

By Holly Kays • Staff writer

New matching blue shirts and smiling faces filled the room at the Haywood Regional Health & Fitness Center Aug. 8. With the long sale process giving ownership of Haywood Regional Medical Center to Duke LifePoint finally complete, everyone was ready to celebrate.

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“This is a joyous occasion,” said Dr. Charles Thomas, a former hospital board member and an oncologist in Haywood County. “It’s like a marriage and the birth of a child.”

With plenty of tasty eats and a filled-to-the-gills room — a shuttle kept hospital employees rotating through as their schedules allowed them a few minutes to pop across campus — it certainly seemed festive. Guesstimates put attendance to the event at around 500, including dozens of community members as well as healthcare professionals. 

Thomas is looking forward to the stability and management skills that come with LifePoint’s large size and experience in turning small hospitals around. He’s not the only one. 

“I think the things I’m most excited about are the resources they bring to the table,” said Teresa Reynolds, the hospital’s chief nursing officer and chief operating officer. “Having these resources to help us when we hit a roadblock.”

As part of the sale, Duke LifePoint has promised to invest $36 million in upgrades to the hospital. Part of the company’s strategy is to invest in its community hospitals up front so that they’re better equipped to compete with larger urban hospitals that try to steal patients away. 

“We have to do things extremely well, perhaps even better than what they’ll get somewhere else, because every small hospital fights this perception of ‘there’s something better somewhere else,’” said Jeff Seraphine, president of LifePoint’s eastern group of hospitals. 

Seraphine is proud of the fact that in his group of 20-something hospitals, the average wait time to see a doctor in the emergency room is about 20 minutes, well below the national average.

“We help you move on that journey to get things even better,” he said.  

That journey is already well underway. LifePoint has already taken a group of Haywood employees to LifePoint’s support center in Nashville for a patient safety conference, and a team is working on updating the hospital’s strategic plan.

“We’ll be working over the next one to two months to coalesce that into an updated strategic plan,” Seraphine said. 

The giant MedWest letters that decked out the hill in front of the hospital were taken down the day the sale went through, leaving only the Haywood Regional Medical Center sign, and administrative staff are busy integrating into the LifePoint way of doing things. 

“The LifePoint people have been very supportive,” said Craig Mamelson, assistant vice president of financial operations for the hospital. 

The transition also includes finding a new CEO. Duke LifePoint brought in one of their own, Richard Grogan, to serve in the interim. A selection process is underway, with Seraphine expecting to interview a narrowed-down pool of applicants onsite within a month. 

Seraphine has heard concerns that the hospital needs better scheduling and billing practices, and that it could do a better job of greeting and transporting patients as they come and go from the facility. 

“Those are things that resonate very strongly for us, because our communities are Haywood,” he said, later adding, “I’m sure we won’t be perfect, but I do think we’ll get better together.” 

Duke LifePoint representatives said Haywood’s hospital is already excellent, and that’s what attracted them to the sale. 

“What a disaster that could have been,” Bill Carpenter, CEO of LifePoint Hospitals, said of the recent fire at the hospital that caused an evacuation and weeks without inpatient care. “But the way that this community and the way that your employees rose to the occasion really defines who you are and pretty much says to me that whatever comes along you guys can handle.”

It showed despite the external conditions around them, Haywood’s physicians can rise above it to provide top-notch care.

“The first four patients who came into your emergency department literally had life-threatening illnesses,” said Dr. Harry Phillips, Duke LifePoint’s chief medical officer — medical services, praising Haywood for the effectiveness of the temporary emergency unit it set up in the parking lot following the fire. “Fortunately, they were managed successfully.”

According to Phillips, Duke LifePoint’s acquisition of Haywood Regional was really something akin to destiny. It was the first county hospital in the state of North Carolina back in the 1920s and later was the first to receive construction money from the Duke endowment fund. 

“We’re pretty excited to think how we might build on that legacy,” Phillips said. 

According to Susan Schneider, director of rehab and sports medicine, the patients are excited, too. She’s been fielding questions about the sale throughout the process, and she’s grateful that LifePoint’s been communicating the information she needs to keep her patients in the loop. 

“We’ve been able to let them know how things are going every step of the way because the communication’s been great,” she said. 

Part of that communication has been possible because of former CEO Janie Sinacore-Jaberg’s help in getting the transition going smoothly, Grogan said. 

“As soon as she knew I was going to be here, the communication started,” he said. “Every detail, everything I needed to know, she’s been there.”

The transition means a lot of meetings, new procedures, a new sign out front — but hospital employees are optimistic about the future. 

“We’ve done a lot of great things, but I see greater things coming,” Reynolds said. 

Thomas, also, is hopeful that the trend will keep going that way after a rocky few years.

“We’re on an even keel,” Thomas said, “and I hope we’re not in the news as much.”


Duke LifePoint pledges to round out Swain Medical Center

By Jeremy Morrison • News Editor

Everyone was wearing the new company T-shirt and enjoying punch and cookies in the cafeteria of the Swain Medical Center Monday afternoon, ready to celebrate the hospital’s sale to Duke LifePoint. But what does the sale mean? What impact will it have on the ground?

“I’m not sure what it means, I’m just waiting to see,” said Dr. Valerie Rigg, a family practitioner in Swain County. “They say they’re going to improve our branding and make people more aware of us. I hope they put some money into advertising.”

The doctor knows how she’d really like to see the sale change things in Swain. More services, more specialists.

“I hope so, especially here in Swain. People have to go to Sylva when they need to see a specialist,” Rigg said. “I can think of one patient right now that needs an endocrinologist and the closest one is in Asheville.”

This is in-line with how Steve Heatherly sees the future unfolding. Sitting in the back of the cafeteria, the CEO of WestCare, which oversees both Swain Medical Center and Harris Regional Hospital in Jackson County, said he expects to see the sale afford the community a deeper well of services.

“Duke LifePoint was chosen for their commitment to making community hospitals realize their full potential,” Heatherly said. 

Duke LifePoint’s pledge of $43 million in capital investment will bring new medical services and specialties to Swain Medical Center, Heatherly said. Now, patients have to drive to Sylva for something as simple as a routine preventative-care colonoscopy. Adding endoscopies and other same-day outpatient surgeries will be a priority at Swain.

“So that they don’t have to go all the way to Sylva,” Heatherly said. 

When Heatherly addressed the crowd, he talked more about the benefits of the sale, about the reasons it made sense for the hospitals in the region.

“Chief among them was the fact that our hospitals needed resources to best serve going forward,” Heatherly said. “I’m a finance guy. In framing, I tend to look at things in dollars and cents, but it’s really not about capital, but what that capital allows us to do.”

Bunny Johns, chair of the WestCare Board of Trustees, echoed that sentiment.

“Duke LifePoint brings the resources to our very excellent staff to do the things that we need to do to serve our community,” she said. “We are convinced that this is the group that we can work with and can work with us to move into the future.”

Dr. Harry Phillips, Duke LifePoint’s chief medical officer — medical services, told those assembled in the Swain hospital cafeteria that he was “excited,” “committed” and “honored” and considered the local staff “almost rock stars around the mission.”

“I particularly want to be the first one from Duke LifePoint to say welcome,” Phillips  said.

David Dill, the president and chief operating office of LifePoint, also took a moment to address the cafeteria. He talked about this “time of change and maybe uncertainty” and vowed to be “transparent with you.”

“We’re committed to helping you make this hospital be everything it can be,” Dill said. “It’s in our DNA to help you grow your hospital.”

Dill described how he found the local hospital staffs to be committed to serving the communities — “It’s very impressive, I can feel that” — and how Duke LifePoint would “work hard not to let you down.”

“If you ever felt alone and by yourself, you don’t need to feel that way anymore,” Dill told the room. “Now it’s a new day, now we move forward. I don’t think it’s a finish line, I think it’s a starting line.”


Duke LifePoint: a knight in shining armor for Harris Regional

By Becky Johnson • Staff writer

Duke LifePoint has moved swiftly to win allegiance of doctors and nurses at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva during its first week as the new owner.

“You are the ones that make healthcare happen in this hospital. You are the ones that make the patient experience,” David Dill, president and chief operating officer of LifePoint, told 80 nurses, doctors and staff gathered in the front lobby of Harris on Monday. “We will work hard to make sure this is the place you want to be.”

The medical community at Harris has been equally quick to embrace Duke LifePoint, elevating the new ownership company to hero-like status.

“We are going to have to work very hard not to let you down,” Dill told the crowd at Monday’s reception celebrating the new ownership.

Benefit of the doubt is squarely in their corner for now. Dr. Martha Anderson, a radiologist at Harris, said Duke LifePoint met with the doctors and staff in her radiology group even before formally taking ownership.

“And they listened and they took notes. I think they really value physician input and employee input,” Anderson said. “The staff are the strength of the hospital. They want direction and they want input. When they realize they are appreciated again, they will be happy, and it has been a while since they have been happy.”

That’s no reflection on WestCare’s CEO Steve Heatherly, a beloved leader who’s seen as savvy yet compassionate and will stay on in his top role.

“Steve is well respected by the medical staff,” Anderson said.

Instead, medical staff believe Harris has been hampered by its affiliation with Haywood Regional Medical Center since 2010. The Harris medical community is eager to shed the failed joint venture known as MedWest in favor of Duke LifePoint. 

“Physicians have been positive about switching,” said Dr. Larry Selby, a pathologist at Harris. “The last affiliation didn’t go so well. We just saw a downward trend.”

But that’s in the past, Dill said.

“Now there are blue skies. It is a new day,” Dill said, promising a new sign out front soon. “I asked Steve if anyone would be disappointed about a new sign and he said ‘I don’t think so.’”

The Jackson County medical community rejected MedWest early in the partnership amid growing suspicions that Haywood was getting preferential treatment.

Historically, Harris and Haywood enjoyed separate but equal footing. But Jackson doctors feared Haywood was being positioned as the flagship of MedWest and would gradually usurp their role in the healthcare landscape.

And while Duke LifePoint now owns both — technically making Haywood and Harris more joined than ever — Dill said he doesn’t subscribe to the merger mentality.

Consolidating healthcare services in the name of efficiency is usually a failed strategy for community hospitals. Instead, LifePoint aims to make each hospital as robust as possible, he said.

“What’s in our DNA is to provide services close to home. That’s what we know how to do,” Dill said. “Our only motivation is to keep as many services as close to home as possible to grow this hospital.”

Perhaps the biggest beef among doctors at Harris in recent years lay with the management company hired to run MedWest, Carolinas HealthCare. Selby questioned whether Carolinas was driven by its own motives, such as competitive posturing in the state’s healthcare landscape.

While LifePoint is a national, for-profit company, its own interests aren’t mutually exclusive from Harris’ — in fact they are one in the same.

“The way you increase the value of the hospital is to grow services and bring in more doctors to provide the services,” Selby said.


New direction

After a three-year run under Carolinas as part of MedWest, the Harris medical community was ready for a change — even if that meant selling out lock, stock and barrel to a national for-profit company with stock exchange initials. 

Not too long ago, an outright sale of the hospital was considered a worst-case scenario — the nothing-to-lose nuclear option. 

“Doctors tend to be more independent minded. Medicine attracts that type of people,” Selby said.

But Harris physicians had already given up their autonomy  under the management contract with Carolinas and the pseudo-merger with Haywood. It’s hard to say whether doctors would have agreed so eagerly to a sale to Duke LifePoint had it not been for that experience.

But, it would have come eventually, one way or the other.

“You can’t be just a little hospital by yourself anymore,” Selby said of the sale. “I think it puts us on more stable financial footing and hopefully it will stay that way with the expertise Duke LifePoint brings in running small hospitals.”

For staff, they are all looking forward to tackling the wish-list backlog thanks to Duke LifePoint’s pledge of a  $43 million capital investment at Harris and Swain over 10 years, which was inked as a condition of the sale.

“We will be able to invest in new technology and create new service lines we don’t have now” said Tim Bell, the director of surgery. “They bring some really good capital to invest in infrastructure.”

Duke LifePoint brings more value to the table than just a cash infusion, said Sandi Allen, a clinical informatics nurse.

Allen visited a Duke LifePoint hospital in the run up to the sale and was impressed by how smoothly things ran there, and how happy staff seemed to be, which she attributes to streamlined systems and best practices WestCare will be able to borrow. For example, vital signs from monitors are automatically fed into electronic patient charts rather than nurses manually entering them into the computer system.

“The fewer things the nurses have to do like that it frees them up to be at the bedside. It all comes back to the patient,” Allen said.

During his speech at Monday’s gathering, Heatherly publicly commended the instrumental leadership of WestCare Board President Bunny Johns during a period of “difficult times,” an understatement prompting a chorus of laughter from the room. Heatherly said John’s service during a somewhat tumultuous four years was far more than she signed on for when agreeing to serve as a volunteer board member.

“Bunny, how many documents did you have to sign?” asked Dr. Harry Phillips, Duke LifePoint’s chief medical officer — medical services, attending the reception.

“I’m still signing them,” Johns quipped back.

Johns answered a question she has been asked many times about the WestCare board’s decision to sell.

“Why Duke LifePoint? They are committed to working with us to achieve good health outcomes for our communities,” Johns said.

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