If you live in Kingsport, Tennessee and want to exercise your First Amendment right to protest unpopular decisions related to community healthcare, don’t sit on the grass in a public right-of-way opposite the local hospital. If you do, and the grass is inadvertently harmed, hospital officials might try to send you to prison.
The hospital in question is owned by Ballad Health, the largest state-sanctioned healthcare monopoly in the nation (approved by Tennessee officials over the strenuous objections of the Federal Trade Commission). Ballad was created by a controversial and politically smelly mega-merger. Covering an area of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia roughly the size of New Jersey, Ballad’s Chief Executive is a featured contributor to the conservative right-wing Federalist Society, earning himself a personal Federalist Society webpage. If you’re interested, you can watch him wriggle during a 60 Minutes interview as he tries to dispel concerns about alleged healthcare fraud at an organization where he was formerly a Vice-President (sequence starts at around minute 7:50). Notwithstanding the denials made to 60 Minutes, the organization subsequently paid $260 million to settle civil and criminal charges brought by the U.S. Department of Justice related to false billing and illegal kickbacks.
For over six months, a disabled veteran, community advocate, and independent investigative journalist named Dani Cook has been camped on a grassy median outside Ballad’s Kingsport hospital in an around-the-clock protest against the greedy, duplicitous, and bullying behavior of this robber-baron healthcare monopoly. She is joined each day and night on a rotating basis by dozens of other citizens from around the region. The protest was initially triggered by Ballad’s announcement of its plan to shut down the local hospital neonatal intensive care unit along with its specialized emergency trauma service.
When Ms. Cook drew public attention to concerns about the shutdowns, hospital executives responded with condescension and mockery. However, Ballad’s ad hominem attacks did not get rid of her, but instead ignited a wildfire of grassroots democratic activism. The protest rapidly evolved into a citizen-led movement to replace the current Ballad administration with a municipal hospital authority that would operate transparently and be accountable to the people of the region.
- A citizen petition challenging Ballad’s conduct has received over 25,000 signatures. A public Facebook page and associated Facebook Live broadcasts follow the protest and have almost 4500 registered members.
- The protest has become a magnet for whistleblowers from inside the Ballad organization, who have disclosed disturbing information (such as an agreement between Ballad and a local medical practice not to compete in the hiring of nurses). Ballad has delivered intimidating letters to Ms. Cook demanding that she identify the whistlebowers. She has not betrayed her sources.
- Ms. Cook and a group of Ballad protesters traveled to Washington and testified at hearings held by the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the process by which Ballad was created. After the hearings, the agency gave Ballad 90 days to produce eight years’ worth of financial, personnel, and administrative records.
- A federal lawsuit was filed by a group of citizens challenging Ballad’s incestuous interlocking Board of Directors, in which the same people sit on Ballad’s board of directors and the board of a university that operates large multispecialty healthcare practices that are among Ballad’s few remaining competitors. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, board minutes showed one of the interlocking directors made statements about coordinating medical billing practices that could equate to price-fixing between Ballad and its university-based competition. After this information became public, that individual then very abruptly “retired” at a young age from an executive position with a large industrial corporation that had been paying him millions in annual compensation.
In a move reminiscent of calling the Parkland shooting student activists “paid actors,” Ballad has questioned whether Ms. Cook’s protest has financial backing from some nefarious secret sources. Why else would anyone criticize such a wonderful health care system whose motto is: “It’s your story, we’re listening”?
Nope. Dani Cook is just a deeply concerned citizen, a disabled veteran who continues to serve her country by using her intelligence, her voice, and her social media skill to speak truth to power.
Ballad retaliated again, yesterday, with its lowest and perhaps most desperate blow to date. Acting through its chief of security, Ballad Health filed a criminal complaint accusing Ms. Cook of felony vandalism for -— get this — allegedly causing some grass to die on the median occupied by the protesters. [The median is subject to a public right of way easement, but apparently Ballad remains responsible for its maintenance.] In a suspiciously-timed political move, the City of Kingsport simultaneously introduced a proposed ordinance that would deprive the protesters of the ability to shelter themselves from the elements as winter approaches, banning the tarps and small tents that they have been using for six months. Last night, the ordinance passed a first reading, despite a vocal standing-room-only show of citizen opposition.
I have been told that, prior to the alleged death of some grass, Ballad removed the irrigation system that had previously watered it. I have also been told that smelly manure was spread as “mulch” near the protesters. Of course, manure only stinks when it is not properly composted, and raw manure can burn plants. So, whether from lack of water or from manure poisoning, perhaps Ballad’s own hands are not clean when it comes to who is responsible for the demise of any grass.
In any case, it appears that Ballad Health did not approach the protesters asking to be made whole for any inadvertently damaged blades of grass. Moreover, although many other people have occupied the protest space along with Ms. Cook, she is the only reported target of Ballad’s criminal complaint. Instead of asking for compensation or repair of the grass, as a simple civil matter, Ballad has chosen to pound this good woman and speaker of inconvenient truth with the hammer of a bullshit felony accusation. With this course of action, Ballad ironically validates critics who condemn the judgment of its leadership.
An outstanding local criminal defense law firm promptly stepped up to represent Ms. Cook pro bono. Moral support is also welcome. This story, including reader comments, will be posted on the protesters’ public Facebook page. Please consider telling Ballad what you think.
Otteray Scribe just posted a breaking news link — the police have reportedly refused to prosecute, finding that no crime has been committed: www.wjhl.com/...