Published DateBy Terry Leavitt
CONWAY — Memorial Hospital is beginning the process to join MaineHealth system, a network of non-profit hospitals in Maine.
The hospital made the announcement Thursday, following a vote of the board of trustees the Wednesday night to go ahead with the plan that they have been exploring over the past year.
MaineHealth is a not-for-profit health care system based in Portland, Maine. Members include Maine Medical Center and 11 other hospitals and health-related organizations in Maine.
In announcing the plan Thursday, Memorial Hospital CEO Scott McKinnon and Gene Bergoffen, chairman of the board of trustees, said becoming a member MaineHealth will provide both financial benefits and an improvement in the hospital's ability to provide medical services for the community.
"The key is not so much financial as improving our ability to deliver medical services in the community," Bergoffen said. "It's a stronger partner to bring those services and maintain those services, and to afford some of the more expensive things we're going to have to do. We'll share costs and share relationships with them for things like medical records systems and so on. What's really driving us is to provide better health care to the community and to sustain that health care."
At the same time, however, McKinnon admitted that money is becoming an increasingly big issue for all health care providers, particularly with the decline in reimbursement rates from insurers.
Becoming a member of the MaineHealth system, McKinnon said, should provide cost savings in "back-office functions," such as purchasing medical and related supplies, legal, marketing, IT and finance costs.
"There's a lot of these corporate back-office functions that will become more affordable by being part of a larger group. And we'll have access to employee benefits that will be more affordable as part of a larger organization," he said. "We think that it really will position us in a much stronger place. The other thing that is very important, we're doing this when we're in a very strong and stable organization today. We're not reacting to any adverse financial implications that are occurring but we're being very proactive and visionary and we're looking two, five 10 years down the road on how the landscape in health care delivery and reimbursement is going to change. We think this will create a stronger platform with this partnership."
Another area that will be more affordable as part of the system, he said, will be capital improvements, whether it be the buying of medical equipment, new technology or building projects at the hospital. One of the first projects on that list is upgrading to a new electronic medical record system that will provide one electronic record for each patient that will be easily transferable between departments in the hospital as well as between providers in the Maine Health system. If Memorial Hospital were to try to set up a new electronic health record system on its own, McKinnon and Bergoffen said it could cost millions. Memorial will still have to bare some of the cost of setting up the new system, but those costs will be shared with the 12 other medical providers that are already part of the system.
Among the medical benefits Memorial Hospital expects to see from joining the network are:
• Access to new clinical technology, potentially including telemedicine.
• Improving Memorial Hospital's ability to provide specialty care delivered locally, potentially including clinical services like oncology, breast health and cardiac care.
• Better access to continuing medical education for Memorial staff and improved ability to recruit and retain physicians.
"It's important to know in terms of the right fit for the community the relationship between MaineHealth and Maine Medical Center, the hospital and the community is very strong today, as we speak," McKinnon said. "The majority of our specialty care, things that we don't do, go to MaineHealth. So it's a natural relationship that exists today."
Most outpatient referrals and 89 percent of inpatient referrals from Memorial currently go to another health facility to Maine Medical Center or another MaineHealth organization.
Memorial has been talking to MaineHealth for about a year before making the decision, and Bergoffen, who has been a trustee for six years, said the hospital has been considering some such option for several years. When he came on the board, he said, "There were conversations about the challenges to small rural hospitals to recruit, sustain, finance and support the services you need in a small community. You want to do it all alone, you want to provide everything you possibly can and people begin to expect it but you can't. You're always struggling with that challenge of what can you provide to the community. Even at that time it was recognized that the closer you get to a tertiary hospital [which provides specialized care], the better. You provide a continuum of care, you provide all services through a system, you can't do it alone.
This is a preliminary step in the process of becoming a member of the MaineHealth system. Negotiations are expected to take anywhere from four months to a year before the board of trustees will be able to vote on a formal written agreement with MaineHealth. The process will also be overseen by the N.H. Attorney General's office, which will make sure that Memorial will still be able to carry out it's non-profit mission as part of the network. There will also be community meetings during the process, to hear any community thoughts on the plan and address any concerns.
If Memorial does become a member of the network, McKinnon and Bergoffen said from a patients perspective, little will change. The hospital will maintain a great deal of autonomy, McKinnon will stay on as CEO and continue to run the day-to-day operations of the hospital. Memorial would have a member on the board of MaineHealth, McKinnon would serve on a panel of executives and other medical staff would serve on MaineHealth advisory panels.
"This is not that we attach to MaineHealth and then they take care of us. We will continue to be fiscally responsible and continue to provide the level and quality of service that's expected. This is just a way through a partnership to enhance those efforts and make us stronger," McKinnon said.
"Part of the right fit is the system that MaineHealth presents is very advantageous to us," he said "And it's a model that really believes in local management and control of services. They really emphasize locally delivered care. It's not about taking away service; its about how they can enhance what we already have here."