HMC extends affiliation talks

The Henry Medical Center (HMC) is closer today –– than it was nine months ago –– in deciding the health-care entity with which it expects to establish a partnership in providing services.

However, no decision has been reached on which of the two finalists –– Emory Healthcare and Piedmont Healthcare –– will get the nod.

Hospital leaders need more time to make a decision, according to HMC's Chief Executive Officer Charles F. Scott, who said: "We're going to do more in-depth evaluation, have more discussion and … get more input and feedback from those organizations about various aspects of a transaction that could be useful to us in helping us make our decision."

Hospital leaders will examine how a partnership with Emory or Piedmont would benefit HMC's quality of care, and service to patients. An affiliation with either group would also impact the hospital's financial strength, ability to expand clinical services, and access capital, Scott said.

"[We will ask] what do we get, how do we benefit, what do we give up with each of those options, before making a decision," he said, "and also ... ask them for more specific commitments, to define what they will do for us."

Jeff Mills, vice chairman of HMC's operating board, announced the desire for the extension Thursday, during a meeting with the Henry County Board of Commissioners. He said hospital leaders are working to determine the terms of the affiliation, with options including a lease agreement, and an outright sale of the hospital.

"A sale of the hospital is not off the board," said Mills. "I don't think that's the preferred option, but it is an option. One of the things we would undertake in this continuing dialogue, would be to look at potential models, which might include an outright sale."

Both Emory and Piedmont, he said, have "demonstrated their sincere desire" to affiliate with HMC. "We're going to continue the due-diligence process, to clarify our ability to choose the best one," said Mills, who is also the chairman of the Affiliation Steering Committee for HMC.

Mills told the commissioners the affiliation procedure has taken a different form, from when it was initially started 9-10 months ago.

"At that time, the concept was a loose affiliation with a larger medical health-care system in the Atlanta area," Mills explained. "It became increasingly apparent … that was not going to [give] us what we needed."

He added that "legal and operational restrictions" at the hospital would not be resolved a loose affiliation. The affiliation discussions, he said, represent the second-most important decision regarding HMC, behind only the decision to open the hospital 30 years ago.

"In short, we have two good candidates who really want us, which is a good place to be," Mills continued. "We intend now to continue this process, to enhance [it]. We are not going to make a decision in the relative near term. We are going to take our time, to get the right candidate.

"Just recently, the [affiliation] steering committee, and members of the management team, conducted site visits to hospitals affiliated with Emory and Piedmont," he said. "We were interested in hospitals that would … be like us, if we were affiliated with either [entity]," he said.

"The day of the standalone-hospital is probably numbered," he said.

The steering committee will also discuss the impact of an affiliation on the local workforce, added Mills.

Similar affiliations between hospitals and larger health-care systems are not uncommon nationwide. Health-care reforms in the country, Mills said, encourage the gathering together of hospitals with larger systems.

Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis questioned Mills regarding his goal of negotiating with a single health-care entity.

"From a competitive standpoint …, doesn't it make sense to negotiate with two, instead of just one?" she asked.

Mills responded: "If we were set on just selling, your point would be well taken. But, there's more to what we're looking for in this relationship than just dollars. It's services, it's quality, it's a relationship."

Mathis, after hearing Mills' plans, commented on the future of HMC, and health-care options for local residents.

"Henry County is in a very enviable position," she said. "We have two quality health-care organizations who are literally salivating to get their hands on this hospital. We have the potential to improve health care in Henry County, to improve the bottom line of the hospital, [and] to utilize that facility for economic development related to the health-care and education fields.

"I was very encouraged because the hospital board demonstrated ... that they felt like we need to dig as deep as we can to make sure, at the end of the day, that the citizens of Henry County have the best health care and the best economic situation … that we could possibly have," she said.