Independence Is Not a Strategy for Health Systems


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There are ways to keep going it alone in the face of massive consolidation, says one health system’s CEO. It’s not a strategy, but a means to end, he says.

Afraid your hospital or health system can’t compete because you lack size and scale?

A merger might help, but it’s not the only possible answer to your problems. Freehold, NJ-based CentraState Healthcare System’s top leader is certain it’s not the best solution for his organization.

Consolidation continues to upend the acute and post-acute healthcare industry. In fact, in a recent HealthLeaders Media survey, some 87% of respondents said that their organization is exploring potential deals, completing deals already under way, or both.

But CentraState isn’t among them, says John Gribbin, its president and CEO.

On a continuum basis, CentraState is already diversified. That’s one of the potential selling points of an M&A deal.

Anchored by the 248-bed CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, NJ, the 2,300-employee organization also contains three senior care facilities—one assisted living, one skilled-nursing facility, and a continuing care retirement community.

It can be argued that CentraState may not possess the scale to compete with multifacility, multistate large health systems that can take advantage of a hub-and-spoke strategy for referrals. Nor may it be able to afford expensive interconnected IT systems.

But there ways other than mergers to achieve scale and collaboration, says Gribbin.

Means to an End

Gribbin insists that he and CentraState’s board, which supports and encourages independence, are not dogmatic about it.

“Independence is not a strategy,” he says. “It’s a means to an end. The moment that ceases to be worthwhile is the moment we’ll consider another way to achieve our mission.”

Change is part of that strategy, he says, adding that healthcare in 2017 needs to be far more collaborative, not only with patients and family, but with other healthcare organizations. That’s a big difference from previous generations.

“Our real strategy is scale and relevancy,” he says.

And there are ways to create scale short of taking on all the legacy costs and “baggage,” as Gribbin calls it, inherent in any merger.

“There’s a lot of costs involved in merging… and while mergers work in some instances, they don’t work in all, and in many communities, they are increasing costs to the consumer,” he says.

In addition to the commonly stated goals of improving the community’s health and wellness, patient costs are extremely important in fulfilling CentraState’s mission, Gribbin argues.

Many mergers involve replacing hospitals and adding patient towers and high-cost equipment. That adds to their cost structure means they have to extract higher pricing, says Gribben.

“That’s the vicious circle you find yourself in. I prefer to create scale in a different manner.”

Focus on the Mission

Gribbin, who has led CentraState for 17 years, prefers to solve that challenge in part through a strong network of physicians unburdened by excessive administrative overhead.

He says the health system has to increasingly take on value-based contracting and financial risk. To be successful under such value-based reimbursement, partnerships with physicians are increasingly important, as is a redefinition of the relationship with the patient.

“We used to look at our relationship with the patient as a typical hospital stay,” says Gribbin. “What we’re preaching now is that hospital stay is a temporary interruption in our relationship. What happens before or after defines the relationship’s success.”

With its physician alliance and clinically integrated network in place, CentraState, unlike many hospitals, has been able to avoid, in large part, expensive physician practice acquisitions that can be a financial challenge.

“I’ve done it in the past, and may do it again, but we’ve tried to avoid it,” he says. Instead, contracts define the relationships and incentives.

As an example of those relationships, CentraState partners with a major patient-centered medical home primary care practice on four performance and three utilization measures.

As a result of the shared savings generated in the first year, which came largely from hospital-based savings, the physicians in that group referred 59% of their patients to CentraState.

This year they’ve referred 71% of their patients to CentraState because of its low costs, which help drive financial reward for both parties under the contract.

“On one hand, we’re keeping people appropriately out of acute care, but on the other hand, they’re sending [more] people here. So we’re experiencing higher but more appropriate volume. In this scenario, everyone wins,” Gribbin says.

A New Deal with Physicians

In order to avoid the need to acquire physician practices, Gribbin says it helps to have a suite of services to offer them as a starting point.

“Most don’t want to sell their practice, but they feel like they have to, he says. “If you give them the opportunity to stay independent, they’ll take it.”

Helping them with access to better revenue cycle management, malpractice insurance, and risk management, and helping them create the ability to enter into risk-based contracts is another big help with defining a new relationship based on shared goals with physicians that ultimately benefit the patient, he says.

Physicians can establish a relationship with CentraState through its independent practice association, or a physician hospital association, and avoid surrendering their autonomy, he says.

“The physicians got paid better, the payer saved money even including the bonus, the hospital won because it’s high value care, and the patient’s winning too,” he says. “It’s a microcosm of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

As a small organization, both Gribbin and the board worry about being frozen out of narrow networks. Much of the energy they’ve expended in being a low-cost organization is wasted, he says, if they can’t get the big payers to include them in contracting.

“As long as the market isn’t rigged against us, we’re OK, because we’re a high-value organization.”

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