February 21, 2022 6:00am

Erlanger transition gets Power Poll support even though many questions remain

Power Poll members also would like to see new police chief prioritize community relations, department morale and diversity and equity work

Photo of Chris Vass
Chattanooga, TN Correspondent

Changing up Erlanger Health System's governance structure — transitioning the billion-dollar health care giant into an independent, private nonprofit institution — seems like a good idea, according to just over half of Power Poll Chattanooga survey respondents.

News about the health system's exploration of a governance overhaul emerged last week when Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger sought County Commission approval for money to hire a Nashville-based attorney to assist the county with a potential transition.

Supporters of the sweeping change argue that Erlanger's current model of governance under the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority Act (overseen by an all-volunteer, 11-member board of trustees appointed by the state legislature and county commission) is no longer sustainable. They say Erlanger is put at a competitive disadvantage because its business must be conducted in public.

Asked “Do you think it necessary for the long-term stability and success of Erlanger Health System that the hospital transition to a 501(c)3 governance structure?” 53% of Power Poll respondents said 'yes,” while 14% said “no.” A full third of respondents — 33% — said they “didn't know yet.”

There are tons of unanswered questions about what a new governance structure would like and how it would function, how the hospital's longtime relationship with the UT College of Medicine might be affected, and how the hospital would maintain its critical public service mission as the area's primary provider of indigent care and highly specialized services.

Erlanger representatives have spent months visiting other institutions for insights into what works elsewhere, and there are plenty of other models, such as UT Medical Center in Knoxville, which for more than 20 years has operated as a nonprofit academic medical center.

Ultimately, Power Poll members think some kind of transition will happen. Just over two-thirds — 67% — said the hospital board and county “will be successful in converting the hospital's governing/operating structure.” Only 4.6% said “no” and 29% said “don't know.”

The takeaway? While there is support for Erlanger and the county looking into different operating models and securing the necessary approval from local and state lawmakers, much work needs to be done to reassure citizens about the plans and intent.

In other significant news, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly is ever closer to hiring a new police chief. Of course, this new hire will have his or her hands full with tackling violent crime. We wanted to know what Power Poll members think about other priorities the new chief should embrace.

Asked “Besides tackling gun and violent crime (the obvious), what should the top priority be for the new police chief?" just under a third — at 31% — said “improving community relations;” followed by “improving department morale, 23%; “ developing and implementing workable diversity and equity strategies in hiring, training and community relations work, 23%; “holding officers and department personnel accountable with greater transparency;” 14%; “other,” 7%; and “don't know, 2.3%.

The police department recently launched a co-response team in which a member of CPD's crisis intervention team partners with a licensed clinician to work with individuals under duress.

Power Poll member Steve Hunt of Berry & Hunt is hopeful about such an approach.

"Much like the 'ambassadors' with the Downtown Chattanooga Alliance interact with those in the district who are experiencing homelessness before police are called, I am hopeful that the new program of crisis intervention professionals accompanying our CPD officers will be embraced wholeheartedly by the [Kelly] administration and our new police chief," Hunt wrote.

And finally, it is time to begin looking at this year's election mayhem. The Tennessee General Assembly gave the go-ahead to political parties and governing bodies to approve partisan school board races this year. Given the political climate these days, we wondered if party affiliation will make a difference in the voting booth. The answers may surprise you.

Asked "Will knowing the party affiliation of a [school board] candidate affect your vote?" 48% said "yes" while 45% said "no." Another 7% said they didn't know.

Dr. B.W. Ruffner, a past president of the Tennessee Medical Association, said he is opposed to any "political influence" on the Board of Education.

"I would prefer that those members ignore party affiliations and focus only on the best interests of our children," he wrote.

Contact Chris Vass, public editor at the Times Free Press, at cvass@timesfreepress.com or cvass@powerpoll.com.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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