Increasingly, health care systems like Duluth-based Essentia and North and South Dakota-based Sanford have been buying or striking up agreements to run local independent hospitals across the state. In one of the most recent moves toward consolidation, the commission helping determine the fate of Virginia Regional Medical Center on the Iron Range voted in late June to partner with Essentia, though the city would continue to own the hospital.
These partnerships come largely thanks to federal healthcare reform provisions that, among other things, reward the ability to serve a wide range of patient needs while saving money at the same time. At a rural health conference in Duluth a few weeks ago, Lawrence Massa, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association, noted that the majority of hospitals in the state are now affiliated with larger systems. “That trend has accelerated,” he said. “I think communities can stay independent when it comes to the ownership model, but they have to integrate the delivery model.”
New models for collaboration are emerging, as MPR News’ Elizabeth Stawicki reported this morning on All Things Considered. According to her story, Rochester-based Mayo Clinic is establishing what it calls the Mayo Clinic Care Network, whereby independent medical facilities in Minnesota and elsewhere are able to tap the prestigious health system for second opinions and advice on complicated cases–all for a fee, of course.
The arrangement is designed to help smaller hospitals with limited resources keep patients while at the same time expand Mayo’s reach into the healthcare marketplace.
What these trends will mean for quality of patient care remains to be seen. Judith Neppel, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Health Association in Crookston, an advocacy group, told me recently that most of the affiliations have benefited locals. “I’m hearing that generally the communities are satisfied,” she said. “I believe it’s helped with the recruiting and retention of important professionals, specifically primary care physicians and mid-level providers. It made access better in most of these rural communities. I don’t hear negatives.”
Neppel said her organization is conducting a survey to determine more scientifically the impacts of expanding health care systems on care. I’ll keep an eye out for the results and post them here when they become available.