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Huggins Hospital hopes to avoid public relations pitfalls in its quest for affiliation

By Erik Eisele

WOLFEBORO — In its quest for affiliation, Huggins Hospital is looking for a similar deal to the one Memorial negotiated with MaineHealth, according to officials — but without the controversy.
"We want to try to avoid any of the pitfalls of people feeling we didn't do our due diligence," Huggins CEO Michael Connelly said in a phone interview on Monday.

Huggins, a 25-bed hospital in Wolfeboro, announced last month they are looking for an organizational partner, either a larger hospital or hospital network, that wants to partner with them.
Huggins officials hope a partnership can serve as a bulwark against the uncertainty of a changing industry. A larger partner would serve to ensure Huggins' long-term financial stability, the statement said, as well as enhance the provider/physician stability within the community and support the existing core services.
The Huggins announcement came as state regulators review the affiliation agreement between Carroll County's other hospital, Memorial and MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center. That arrangement is also intended to provide the local hospital stability as the industry evolves, according to officials, but claims that the deal was mishandled began the moment the partnership was announced.
Huggins officials watched the Memorial debate unfold, Connelly said, and they took a lesson from it. They are engaging the community in conversations early, he said, well before possible partners have been identified. "Hopefully we'll be able to avoid people feeling like, 'Gee, you didn't do your homework,'" he said. "I think we're going about it right."
It's early in the process, Connelly said, but Huggins is looking for a deal "very much similar to the Memorial MaineHealth kind of model."
Huggins already has a collaboration agreement with Wentworth-Douglas Hospital in Dover, Connelly said, but it is very limited. The two hospitals share some doctors and specialty services, but "affiliation goes deeper than that."
At the other extreme would be a complete takeover of the hospital, he said. "We're looking for something more in the middle."
The Memorial deal is a good example of what Huggins is looking for.
"It's more of a virtual merger," Connelly said, where the affiliate hospital "retains a certain level of local control."
In a complete takeover there wouldn't be an option to part ways after the paperwork was signed, he said, but in the Memorial deal there is a trial period during which either party can decide to go its own way. That's what Huggins would be looking for too.
"I don't think it needs to be a complete handing over of the keys, so to speak," he said.
But for Huggins to remain viable in the changing health-care environment, Connelly said, they are going to need a partner.
"We see the headwinds very clearly," he said. They can probably keep going alone for a few more years, but beyond that will be difficult. The industry is changing, he said, and small hospitals have to adapt.
But "we're not interested in being anything less than we are today," he said. "Our goal is not to reduce services. If anything it is to enhance [services]."
Huggins is still in the early stages of this process, Connelly said. "We still have a lot to do with engaging our community."
"We're thinking we'll be targeting organizations to approach within the next 30 to 90 days," he said.

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