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ARHS Responds to Concerns About Wellness Center Ending Memberships to Public

By Zack Hill

Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.

Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, has responded to some of the concerns and controversy arising from last week’s packed county commissioners meeting where many community members voiced anger and sadness at the Broyhill Wellness Center ending memberships to community members.

“The Wellness Center is not closing,” Hudspeth emphasized. “We are instead shifting its focus toward providing clinical wellness programs to ensure its future. We will continue offering clinical wellness programs for nutrition, weight management, diabetes, Parkinson’s, cancer, cardiac rehab, occupational therapy and physical therapy and offer new programs which have not yet been identified.”

“The clinical wellness programs we’ve offered for the past 15 years have had a positive impact on thousands of patients over the years. As we continue to refine these programs, I feel strongly they will have even greater impact in the future.”

Over 100 people were in the county commissioners’ chambers at last Tuesday’s meeting, most because of ARHS’s recent decision to end public memberships. 

Many were concerned that not only would their physical health suffer, but also their mental and emotional because of the communities and friendships they had formed there.

Hudspeth noted how declining memberships over the last several years—exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic along with the opening of the Watauga County Recreation Center—have made continuing to operate the Wellness Center in the capacity that it has unfeasible.

“Wellness Center membership levels have been declining for years,” Hudspeth said about membership levels pre- and post-pandemic. “To address these declines we’ve tried membership drives, launched new programs, waived sign-up fees and conducted multiple marketing campaigns. But we still operated at a loss.”

In terms of real numbers, our membership dropped to 25 percent of what it was three years ago [before the pandemic],” Hudspeth said. “So if we couldn’t break even all those years before, it’s difficult to project we can continue operation with drastically fewer members. It’s just not realistic or feasible.”

“Any private business owner would tell you that continuing to operate with 25 percent of its customers would be fiscally impossible. In fact, in this post-COVID era, our community has witnessed a multitude of business closures which I would have never thought possible.”

Hudspeth listed Krispy Kreme, Our Daily Bread, Ransom, Sunny Rock, Foggy Rock, Galileo’s and Joy Bistro as examples.

He also said the landscape for exercise is different today than what it has was when the wellness center opened.

“Any suggestion that we did not give due consideration to community impact is not accurate,” Hudspeth said. “When the wellness center opened in 1998 there were few places where people could exercise. But the landscape looks much differently today.”

Multiple speakers part of public comment at last week’s meeting felt that ARHS had not taken into account how ending public memberships would affect community members.

“As we began considering how the wellness center would evolve, we surveyed the local market for public and private exercise facilities,” Hudspeth said. “What we found was that many options exist for all age groups, exercise disciplines and socioeconomic circumstances.”

Hudspeth mentioned that, in addition to the new Watauga County Recreation Center, Anytime Fitness, The Gym 24/7, Hellbender Gym, Train 4 Life JC, Center 45, Deer Valley Athletic Club and Revolution Boone as alternatives and competitors to the wellness center as well as the four facilities located on the App State campus along with several CrossFit gyms.

He also pushed back against the notion that members had been blindsided by the decision.

“As it relates to communication, we have been very transparent about our intentions for the future of the wellness center,” Hudspeth said. “Two years ago we announced the unpopular decision to remove the pool and relocate AppOrtho in that space. We placed blueprints demonstrating our plans in public places for members to see.”

“We were clear about shifting toward prioritizing population health management and adopting processes which aligns patients with targeted medical wellness programs. We were also clear that some of our plans were not finalized. The decision to discontinue offering wellness center membership was not made until March. We met with the 15 full-time and contract employees to inform them of this decision on April 4. We told them they would have an opportunity to work somewhere else within ARHS if they wanted to stay, or they could receive a severance.”

Hudspeth mentioned several programs that “take a public health view of the work we do every day to make life better for those that choose to live in the High Country” including investing in the greenway, Latino, cardiac, pulmonary and cancer programs, building new facilities for acute patient needs, investing millions to support mental health services, supporting the Health and Hunger Coalition, starting a family medicine residency program for increased access to patient primary care and providing $20-25 million per year in charity and compensated care.

“There seems to be a misunderstanding in the community about what is actually happening,” Hudspeth said, noting he’s received several calls from community members concerned about the ending of programs that “saved their lives” such as Thrive Cancer Cohort, Thrive Diabetes Cohort and the cardiac rehab program.

“The good news is that these programs and several other clinical wellness programs are slated to continue,” Hudspeth said.

He pointed to both Watauga and Avery county ranking in the top 20 of the healthiest in North Carolina as proof of ARHS’s commitment to community health and wellness.

“Avery was number 52 [of 100 N.C. counties] just over 10 years ago and because of our investments, has moved up faster than any county in Western North Carolina. Achieving this type of success requires a constant evaluation of the needs of the communities we serve and applying scarce resources where they are needed most,” Hudspeth said.

“Regarding a path forward: we are communicating with leadership at the county to create opportunities for those who may want to join the recreation center.”

The High Country Press will continue to follow this story.