South Georgia health systems look beyond state

Two South Georgia health systems are reaching out across state borders for help in positioning themselves better in a tumultuous health care world.

Phoebe Putney Health System, based in Albany, announced Tuesday that it had struck a partnership with an affiliate of a renowned Pennsylvania-based health system, Geisinger, to improve quality of care and reduce costs.

And Monday, Southeast Georgia Health System said it is exploring possible collaborations with two Florida organizations: Jacksonville’s Baptist Health, and St. Augustine’s Flagler Hospital.

“Those who aren’t finding the right collaboration are not going to be there in the future,” said Gary Colberg, president and CEO of the Brunswick-based Southeast Georgia Health System, according to a Florida Times-Union article.

From mergers to looser partnerships, hospital systems have struck new alliances in recent months to keep up with changes partly sparked by the health reform law.

Hospitals are aiming to cut costs in an era when they face declining reimbursements for services. And the Affordable Care Act has ignited the trend toward revamping the health care payment system, so financial rewards are based on the value of services provided, not simply the amount of care given.

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital
Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital

Phoebe Putney’s CEO, Joel Wernick, said Tuesday that the goal in partnering with Geisinger’s xG Health Solutions is “to perform in the top 10 percent of all hospitals in quality, outcomes, and patient satisfaction.”

Geisinger is often held up by experts as a national model for improving patient outcomes and reducing costs.

Partnerships between xG Health Solutions and other health systems have yielded reductions in admissions and readmissions and decreases in ER visits, while lowering health care costs, Phoebe said.

Geisinger is “as good as it gets,’’ Wernick said.

The health care system is undergoing “monumental change’’ that is “affecting all health systems,’’ Wernick added.

Phoebe Putney spokesman Rick Smith said that xG currently has 18 similar clients. Terms of Phoebe’s payment to xG were not disclosed.

Phoebe Putney has already had a very eventful year. Its long-running legal battle over the acquisition of its only hospital competitor in Albany continued into 2013 with a February ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and a final settlement of the dispute in August.

The Federal Trade Commission challenged the 2011 deal in court, calling it anti-competitive. The settlement of the case left Phoebe in control of the former Palmyra Medical Center.

Last month, Phoebe Putney said it was cutting 127 jobs as part of an organizational restructuring. The reductions come on top of the 33 “leadership’’ positions eliminated earlier. The Albany-based system said the job reductions would lower operating costs by $10 million.

The southwest Georgia region, where Phoebe operates, is viewed as the highest-cost area in the state for medical care. The region has the highest premiums in the health insurance exchange created by the Affordable Care Act.

Experts cite the fact that it has a large proportion of people with chronic disease, and a lack of competition among medical providers.

The medical quality issue is another target area for Phoebe Putney. A year ago, a report card released by the Leapfrog Group showed Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital got an “F” grade on patient safety.

A Phoebe Putney official contested the Leapfrog methodology, saying some of the scoring was based on outdated information. Dr. Doug Patten told GHN last year that Phoebe Putney patients “can be confident [they] are getting excellent care in a safe environment.”

Phoebe said Tuesday in a press release that it would work with xG Health to develop a strategic plan and road map for moving from a fee-for-service model to a value-oriented care delivery model.

xG experts will assess the health system as a whole and provide a deeper analysis of its cardiovascular service line, Phoebe said in the press release.

“xG Health is delighted to have the opportunity to help Phoebe Putney Health System identify ways to improve the quality and reduce the cost of care it delivers,” Dr. Earl Steinberg, CEO of xG Health Solutions, said in the press release.

Meanwhile, Southeast Georgia, Flagler and Baptist Health will spend the next few months looking for “meaningful and substantive things we can do together,” said Hugh Greene, president and CEO of Baptist Health, which operates five hospitals, including Wolfson Children’s Hospital.

The talks are not directed toward a merger, the Times-Union reported.

Greene noted that the headquarters cities of the respective health systems — Brunswick, Jacksonville and St. Augustine — are “distinctive markets but contiguous,” connected by the I-95 corridor.

The systems will study one another’s operations, looking for new ways of doing things, Colberg said, according to the newspaper.

Colberg jokingly likened this imitative collaboration to plagiarism. “In college, plagiarism is a bad thing,” he said. “In management, it’s a good thing.”