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HRMC, WestCare affiliation creates MedWest

A long-awaited affiliation of the hospitals in Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties will become official in January 2010.

That’s when a newly created hospital company, dubbed MedWest Health System, will take over day-to-day operations for Haywood Regional Medical Center and WestCare’s two hospitals: Harris Regional in Sylva and Swain County Hospital in Bryson City.

At the same time, the two companies will enter into a management contract with Charlotte-based Carolinas HealthCare System, which currently runs 29 hospitals in North and South Carolina.

HRMC and WestCare officials say joining forces with each other and with Carolinas HealthCare will bring many benefits, whether it is gaining expertise in hospital management or buying medical supplies in bulk.

With the country mired in a recession and possibly headed toward an overhaul of the health care system, some hospital board members see the need to partner up sooner rather than later.

“It’s a no-brainer. Something’s gotta happen,” said Fred Alexander, chairman of WestCare’s board of trustees. “What do you want to be in the storm, the aircraft carrier or the two little PT boats?”

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HRMC officials were especially optimistic about the new venture, likening their company to a phoenix rising and making multiple allusions to the “dark days” when Haywood Regional failed federal inspections and lost its Medicare status, followed by an exodus of private insurance companies. The hospital was forced to cease all but emergency operations, touching off a financial and public relations crisis.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Mark Clasby, chairman of the HRMC board.

“It’s a new day,” said HRMC CEO Mike Poore. “We are no longer looking toward the past. We are looking toward the future.”


Vying for CEO

In the next few weeks, the new board of directors for the joint venture will have to decide who will become MedWest’s CEO. Both HRMC CEO Mike Poore and WestCare CEO Mark Leonard are vying for that position though they publicly downplay the competition.

“This is the right thing for all of our communities,” said Poore. “That’s more important than if I’m the CEO or Mark is the CEO.”

HRMC and WestCare will keep their existing boards, but they will retain autonomy in only limited areas, like approving credentials for doctors. Their main influence will be appointing representatives to the joint MedWest board, which will make most major decisions.

As of now, no name changes are planned for the three individual hospitals. The name “MedWest” will primarily be used for legal and accounting purposes.

“If we try to call this hospital MedWest tomorrow, a hundred years from now, they’re still going to call us [by the same name],” said Poore.

John Young, group vice president for Carolinas HealthCare’s western region, repeatedly stressed that his company was not interested in taking a dictatorial approach in running the three hospitals.

“We believe healthcare is a local event,” said Young. “Healthcare in this community will not be run out of Charlotte.”

Poore said the goal is to expand services locally, rather than send patients off on long trips to receive treatment at affiliate hospitals.


Advantages of partnering

WestCare has already experienced the benefits of affiliation in the past. CEO Mark Leonard said after Harris Regional Hospital integrated with Swain County Hospital, his company was able to improve services and introduce new programs.

Leonard said the goals with this affiliation are the same: reduce cost, improve patient outcomes, and expand services. The hospitals can split the cost of expensive new medical equipment they couldn’t afford otherwise. And by pooling their patient base, the hospitals can attract specialty physicians.

Linking up with Carolinas HealthCare, the nation’s third largest nonprofit public system, would also allow HRMC and WestCare to gain insight on best practices in financial management, staff recruiting, and safety and quality improvement.

Clasby said there are provisions for leaving the joint operating agreement, though he would not give specifics.

But leaving the agreement is far from anyone’s mind at this point, as HRMC and WestCare prepare to deal with a possible overhaul of the health care reform, an aging population, and a shortage in nursing and clinical staff.

“We want to be better strategically positioned,” said Alexander. “The last thing we want to do is just be a rural hospital hanging on by our fingertips.”

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