When the Med-West venture was coined two years ago, the premise was an easy sell. Together the hospitals would be stronger than going it alone.
Both Harris and Haywood hospitals had witnessed a troubling loss of patients to Mission — a loss so troubling in fact neither hospital could afford to continue as it was. They faced a cold, hard reality: turn the course, and fast, or they would be faced with financial insolvency.
Indeed, both hospitals hoped the MedWest joint venture would shore up the erosion of patients to Mission. Both, however, seemed to have different ideas of how that would play out on the ground.
Was there enough business for both to stay the size they were, or would one ultimately evolve into the big kid on the block under the MedWest umbrella — and if so, who?
Before the merger, and even now, Haywood and Harris competed very little. Fewer than 5 percent of patients from Jackson migrated to neighboring Haywood or vice-versa.
But with the future of their medical community on the line, 1 percent here and there suddenly seemed to matter quite a lot.
While the call by some Jackson doctors to withdraw from MedWest seems like a shot across the bow to their neighbors in Haywood, Jackson doctors said they didn’t intend it that way. They aren’t questioning the quality or caliber of health care at Haywood’s hospital or by Haywood doctors. Instead, it seems desperation amidst a shifting health care landscape has seized the day.
Next week: Read more about the specific concerns raised by Jackson doctors, an analysis of hospital market share, a snap shot of finances, and philosophical view points on the MedWest venture.
Four long-time physicians in Jackson County are leaving C.J. Harris hospital after becoming disenchanted with the direction of MedWest — and even more so with Carolinas HealthCare System, a giant network of 34 hospitals that MedWest is affiliated with.
Dr. Bob Adams, a hospitalist who is leaving Harris after 36 years, fears Carolinas plans to build up Haywood as a flagship to compete with Mission. He didn’t like where that would lead.
“Harris devolves and Haywood grows,” Adams postulated. “They are playing the corporate practice of medicine. I don’t want to be a pawn in somebody else’s power struggle and be used as a widget in a big business’ plan for their benefit.”
The president of Harris, Steve Heatherly, laments the loss of the four doctors — and the circumstances.
“It is unusual in the history of this organization to have physicians leave because they were not satisfied with the strategic direction,” Heatherly said.
Making matters worse, another seven doctors in the Jackson-Swain medical community have either already left or plan to leave — for a total loss of 11.
“It is unusual to have that level of turn over,” Heatherly said, even though only four of the 11 actually chalk up their departure to “dissatisfaction with the hospital.”
Lessening the blow somewhat, seven new doctors are moving to Jackson and Swain in coming months. They had already been recruited and were intended to bolster the physician ranks.
Now, however, the hospital will see a net loss instead of gain and a gap in a few key specialties.
Dozens of doctors, of course, aren’t going anywhere.
“We must not forget that we still have an extremely skilled and dedicated medical staff of nearly 230 physicians who are choosing to stay in our communities and work in our hospitals to take care of our patients,” Dr. Robin Matthews, an ob-gyn in Haywood County who chairs the Physician Leadership Council of MedWest.
Many of the 2,000 employees of MedWest have rallied to their hospitals’ defense during the past week.
“The hard decision is to stay here and fight for this place to succeed,” said Dr. Casey Prenger, the medical director of the hospitalist group at Harris. “We believe in our hospital and our community, and it is our privilege and honor to take care of you.”
There are huge challenges, however, facing Heatherly and MedWest: hold MedWest together, turn the corner financially, recapture market share from Mission, quell the doctor uprising, and recruit new doctors to fill the holes.
Resolving to make a stand
For the group of Jackson County doctors who went public with their concerns last week, the decision wasn’t an easy one nor was it taken lightly.
“They aren’t trying to hurt anything. They are trying to fix something,” said Dr. Gilbert Robinson, an anesthesiologist at Harris for 10 years.
Even those who spoke out aren’t certain now was the right time, or if it will do any good.
But, the ball was in Adams’ court. When he decided to go public, the core group who had been fighting alongside him during the past year to bring about change internally weren’t going to leave him on a limb by himself, so they reached out and grabbed on as well.
“I decided I wanted to let the community know what was happening to their hospital. The only thing that is going to change is if the community starts standing up for itself to Carolinas and the WestCare board,” said Dr. Waverly Green, a pulmonologist at Harris who is leaving as well.
Adams hopes the issues he raised aren’t construed as a parting shot or chalked up to sour grapes.
“They are portraying those of us who had concerns and discomfort about where we are as being disgruntled and outliers,” Adams said.
But in fact, hospital administration has gone out of its way to praise Adams and the others who are leaving.
“It is regrettable. They will be missed in this community. They are outstanding physicians who have provided years of service to this community,” Heatherly said.
Even doctors in neighboring Haywood, who rightfully have reason to be miffed by Adams’ shot across the bow at MedWest-Haywood, have been complimentary.
“He is a great doctor and wonderful human being. I just happen to disagree with them completely,” said Dr. Marvin Brauer, chief of staff at MedWest-Haywood and a hospitalist like Adams.
While Adams will soon be gone, others who support him will still practice at Harris and will continue carrying the torch to fix perceived problems.
Some of them are even on Harris’ payroll. Technically, the entity they are speaking out against writes their paychecks, putting them in an uncomfortable position at best, a vulnerable one at worst. Normally, few doctors would be willing to take a career gamble like that.
The difference at Harris likely comes down to their new president, Steve Heatherly. Heatherly has been with Harris since the 1990s, part of that time as a physician liaison and serving in a variety of vice president roles and as chief operating officer.
In hopes of quelling dissension among Jackson doctors, Heatherly was promoted two months ago as the president of Harris. It gave Jackson doctors one of their own at the helm — rather than the previous hierarchy where they answered to a single CEO for the entire MedWest venture, Mike Poore, who they were acutely aware hailed from Haywood and still had his base office there.
Jackson doctors have hope that Heatherly will help right the ship.
“I believe Steve is at the place he needs to be to help turn WestCare around, due to his experience and background and skill set. I don’t know of anyone else that would be better at this point in time,” said Bob Carpenter, a former MedWest board member from Sylva who resigned in January over the same issues troubling the doctors.
Even Adams agreed.
“I think the WestCare board and Steve Heatherly are doing their best to work with medical staff now,” Adams said.
Many doctors — even those who are in near lockstep with Adams’ pointed assessment of the MedWest landscape — wish he had given Heatherly more time to fix things before going public.
Dr. Randy Savell, a gastroenterologist doctor at Harris, said Heatherly faces a difficult future.
“He is between a rock and a hard place,” Savell said.
Heatherly’s boss is technically Carolinas, and he answers to them daily. But, he must also answer to the hospital board of directors, all the while winning the good graces of nurses and doctors by proving he will address their concerns.
The road ahead
Heatherly doesn’t downplay the reality that a hospital lives and dies by its doctors. If the doctors are good, people will get their health care locally.
“That leads to more volume through the hospital, which helps solve the business dilemma,” Heatherly said.
That business dilemma — dire financial straits for both Harris and Haywood — looms large in the debate.
Harris has lost more than 10 percent of its in-patient business to Mission Hospital during the past five years.
As a result, Harris is struggling financially and has been losing money for at least three years. It’s now in its third round of layoffs in four years.
“Our hospitals must confront the fundamental business reality that expenses cannot continue to be greater than revenue,” Heatherly said.
If the financial picture was rosier, the paranoia among Jackson doctors that Carolinas is trying to siphon its patients off to Haywood could simply melt away.
For now, Heatherly is stuck in a Catch 22. Rather than shrink, Harris must find a way to regain the market share lost to Mission.
“No organization can cut its way to prosperity, especially not a hospital, where quality patient care is our business. ‘Thrive-ability’ will happen when more patients come through our doors to see our brilliant doctors and caring staff,” Heatherly said.
Harris’ financial problems are largely because it lost several doctors back in 2006 and 2007, Heatherly said. When patients needed a doctor’s appointment, they were forced to look elsewhere and ended up walking right into the open, waiting arms of Mission in Asheville.
Heatherly, who started at Harris in the 1990s, had taken a hiatus for a few years to work for a physician management firm. When he came back to Harris in ?, job No. 1 was recruiting physicians to fill the void.
“The organization was having trouble recruiting physicians to replenish the supply to the local community, and it created a constrained access,” Heatherly said.
In 2008 and 2009, WestCare brought in 10 new doctors. It also bought out several private practices in order to put existing doctors on the hospital’s payroll — reflective of a national trend by doctors who increasingly prefer to work directly for a hospital rather than run their own private practices.
Those moves came at a financial cost, but Heatherly said the influx of doctors stopped the bleeding of market share. Unfortunately, it hasn’t come back up yet either.
“Now that we’ve had success in rebuilding our medical staff, we need more patients from our local communities using our local hospitals. Only then can we expect more positive financial results,” Heatherly said.
Heatherly’s belief in doctors as a core business strategy for the hospital seems genuine. He stresses it even when discussing other topics, like when the long-awaited renovations to Harris’ emergency room will be re-started.
“As we move forward, we have to assess that we have the right medical staff in place to offer ongoing appropriate access to care, and then those opportunities to evaluate facility expansion will be driven by the ability to generate sustained financial results,” Heatherly said.
Heatherly was speaking off the cuff, not reading from a prepared statement. But, his hospital administrator’s version of Alan Greenspan’s famous Greenspeak can be boiled down this way: doctors must be shored up first, which will bring back patients, which will bring back money.