Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Watauga Seniors Strike Back at ARHS


Last night at the regular bi-monthly meeting of the Watauga County Commission, the place was packed (SRO), mainly by senior citizens outraged that the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (ARHS) had announced in an email on April 3 (from sender that the Broyhill Wellness Center in Boone will be closing on May 31. About 20 paying members and instructors at the Center spoke out at the beginning of the meeting, a sharp departure from the usual order of things.

(Public comment's moving to the start of the meeting was fortuitous. Public comment has always been pushed to the last item on the agenda in Watauga, after all votes have been taken, but at the last Commish meeting on April 4, a large group of mainly young people had spoken out against the practice and requested that the commissioners move public comment to the front end, before official votes. Not only did the commissioners agree to that last night, but Chair Larry Turnbow moved to begin the new order of things at once.)

The first speaker emphasized that he and the others appearing before the Commish knew that the county did not own or control the ARHS, but perhaps there was some moral suasion (jaw-boning, I thought) that the County could wield with the ARHS management to reverse the decision. (NOTE: I've just seen the closure announcement that went to -- I guess? -- paying members. It contained a little strategic finger-pointing, subtle but implied, that the County's new center, a couple of blocks away from the Wellness Center, had become a competitor, which along with COVID, had negatively impacted their memberships and hence their revenue (they didn't say that last part about revenue). Not enough money from coaching retirees to be more active? And here I thought that old age in America had been thoroughly commodified and monetized.

The speakers last night were unanimous that the new recreation center is not elder-friendly, and not equipped in layout or equipment anyhow to take the place of the Wellness Center. And what about all the wonderful instructors hired and paid by the Wellness Center? The instructors, some of whom attended last night, received high praise for creating community as well as promoting active health? They're paid $18.00 an hour (one speaker said), and they'll be losing their jobs. Another speaker suggested that the County hire all of them to move their classes to the county's recreation center, a cheery thought and probably a non-starter. 

The bottomline implication is that the County has an actual obligation to do something material -- either some stern talk to put pressure on the ARHS management to reverse a decision that seems whimsical and callous, or making the new recreation center more accessible/usable for the displaced Wellness Center seniors. One speaker did point out that not many years ago Watauga County did own the hospital and could control -- or at least influence -- its direction and its priorities, and that something bad had happened to healthcare in the interim when the county lost control -- or gave it away. 

ARHS removed the lap pool from the Wellness Center in 2021, citing as a reason the county's large new pool at the new recreation center, a competitor, and the ARHS concluded, an unnecessary duplication of available amenities (that is, fiscally unjustifiable). 

I've searched for any company announcement or press release from ARHS about the closing. I've searched the ARHS website, and I find nothing. I've searched the ARHS Facebook page, where there was nary a peep -- going back to March -- that a big change was coming. I've searched the local press, which has been totally silent and/or oblivious to the closure (unless I missed it, which is always possible). It's almost like closing the Wellness Center became a secret, or maybe a live grenade that everyone is tiptoeing around. On the Broyhill Wellness Center webpage, all the regular membership information, etc. is still very much up, with no indication that they may soon be kaput. One speaker last night mentioned the some 1,200 families that are directly impacted. (Membership is that large?) That's news worth reporting.

The ARHS is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit that brought in right at $30 million in revenue in 2020 (as reported on Nonprofit Explorer). Although "nonprofit" is part of their identity, so is the need to meet large expenses (which for ARHS includes at least a couple of top executives making over $1 mil a year).

Following some 20 speakers who were begging the Commish to do something to help save what has been a net asset for good health in Watauga County, as hundreds of elders struggle to stay active, Chairman Turnbow made the motion to instruct the Commish's rep on the ARHS Board, Commissioner Ray Russell, to convey the distress of the community to the top bosses.

The Petition

An on-line petition about the Wellness Center's closing is gathering signatures:  

After 25 years, administrators at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System have decided (without consulting the members of the community it serves) that these true preventive services are no longer compatible with the "clinical mission" of the organization. The administrators found prevention to be innovative in 1998, but "orthopedic and sports medicine care, physical therapy and rehabilitation and cardiopulmonary rehabilitation" are deemed more innovative in 2023.

The administrators have suggested to our community that the Watauga County Community Recreation Center is where Wellness Center members should go after May 31, 2023. The Rec Center is a great facility, as is the Wellness Center. They both serve a purpose and both have unique constituencies. The assumption that the two facilities are homogeneous and that the Rec Center can easily absorb the functions of the Wellness Center is completely unfounded.

The Community of Wellness Center users respectfully request that the ARHS administrators reassess this ill-considered decision. At the very least, involve the people that are affected by the proposed closure and try to come up with a plan that might meet the needs of all concerned.

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