Health Care Merger Results in Longer ER Wait Times in the Tri-Cities Area 

By Consumers for Quality Care, on April 17, 2024

Health Care Merger Results in Longer ER Wait Times in the Tri-Cities Area 

A study conducted by the Tennessee Department of Health, and reported by KFF Health News, found that in the six years since Ballad Health became a 20-hospital system behemoth, ER wait times for consumers have more than tripled.   

In 2018, Tennessee and Virginia lawmakers waived antitrust laws to merge Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health System, forming Ballad, now the largest hospital monopoly in the country. As part of the agreement, Ballad was supposed to keep ER wait times to just over three hours. But according to the findings, patients in Ballad’s network of emergency rooms now spend nearly 11 hours waiting before being admitted. 

Bristol City Councilmember Neal Osborne spent nearly 30 hours in one of Ballad Health’s ER units, experiencing periods of semi-consciousness and vomiting, before he was finally admitted. In the future, Osborne said he will be seeking ER care elsewhere “…because I do not want to further risk my life and die at a Ballad hospital.” 

Unfortunately, for the 1.1 million residents across this 29-county region of Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, there’s no escaping the lengthy wait times. The hospitals in Ballad’s network are the only option for emergency care in the Tri-Cities area.   

The Federal Trade Commission cautions that hospital mergers not only hurt consumers’ access to care but also the quality of care that they receive. This is what’s happening now to patients at Ballad, which has fallen short on 56 of 75 quality-care benchmarks stipulated in the merger agreement. Moreover, records indicate that since the merger in 2018, Ballad has fallen short – $191 million short – of its promise to provide charity care to low-income consumers.  

Ballad’s failure to meet expectations as outlined in the original agreement has caught the attention of elected officials in Tennessee, with some calling on Ballad’s CEO to resign. Lawmakers are considering legislation aimed at prohibiting similarly-structured mergers in the state, effectively reinstating antitrust laws that were waived in 2018.  

Decreased competition hurts consumers, often leading to fewer options for care and higher out-of-pocket costs. CQC urges regulators and lawmakers to promote more competition and to discourage mergers and business practices that leave consumers worse off.