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Norwalk teams up with Danbury, New Milford hospitals

Published 1:38 pm, Thursday, January 31, 2013
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In 2010, Dr. John Murphy and Dan DeBarba Jr. sat down for lunch.

Dr. Murphy had recently taken over as president and CEO of the Western Connecticut Health Network -- the organization created that year when Danbury and New Milford hospitals joined forces.

Now, Mr. DeBarba, the president and CEO of Norwalk Hospital, and Murphy began sounding each other out about a new alliance -- between the network and Norwalk.

What Norwalk Hospital was interested in, Mr. DeBarba said, was whether the two organizations shared common values -- an emphasis on patient care, on teaching its staff best medical practices.

"I was trying to learn about their culture,'' Mr. DeBarba said.

Looking at the future, Mr. DeBarba and the other leaders of Norwalk Hospital knew they needed to join forces with some like-minded hospital.

And, Dr. Murphy said, the more they talked, the more a new alliance made sense.

"It was serendipity,'' Dr. Murphy said. "We recognized the opportunity."

That lunch led to the Western Connecticut Health Network and Norwalk Hospital signing an affiliation agreement last week.

Assuming state and federal regulators allow it, the move would create a health network serving about 650,000 people, stretching from Kent and even towns northward, south to Long Island Sound.

The move is being repeated in different ways and in different combinations around the state.

Yale New Haven Health System has absorbed the Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven.

William Backus Hospital in Norwich recently joined Hartford HealthCare, the system created by Hartford Hospital and several other hospitals in the state.

Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford Springs has allied itself with St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. St. Francis, in turn, announced this month it is joining Ascension Health, the nation's largest Catholic health network.

In all, more than half the state's 31 hospitals are linked with other health organizations in different combinations -- mergers, partnerships, affiliations.

An October report by the state Department of Public Health's Office of Health Care Access -- the Statewide Health Care Facilities and Services Plan -- took note of these changes.

The report states: "Hospitals are pursuing affiliation arrangements and mergers in an effort to contend with growing financial pressures driven by such factors as providing uncompensated care, treating the uninsured in crowded emergency departments, caring for Medicaid patients whose cost of care often exceeds federal and state reimbursement rates, the threat of reduced reimbursement by government payers and tough negotiations with health insurers over contract terms related to the cost of medical services.''

The report also states small hospitals, with a weaker financial base, can benefit from such an affiliation.

"Financially struggling hospitals see mergers with stronger hospitals as a way to survive in the face of thin profits, gain access to capital to make needed facilities improvements or acquire technological equipment and contend with debt and liability issues," the report reads. "Affiliations help smaller hospitals share the cost of new technology, provide the opportunity to access specialists at larger hospitals and also offer patients a wider range of treatment and services.''

Medicare is beginning to base its compensation to hospitals on good patient outcomes, rather than the number of procedures a hospital performs on that patient.

Have good practices and get good outcomes and hospitals will get full Medicare reimbursement. Have a record of less-than-stellar outcomes and Medicare will reduce that funding.

Both Mr. DeBarba and Dr. Murphy said the new affiliation among Danbury, New Milford and Norwalk hospitals would mean the three hospitals could jointly hire specialists that individually they could not.

"I'd love to get a lymphoma specialist,'' Dr. Murphy said, speaking recently at the annual meeting of the Western Connecticut Health Network. "I'd love to have a melanoma specialist. But at one hospital, you would not have enough patients to keep your skills up if you only do one or two procedures a month.''

One specialist working at all three hospitals would make that hiring possible, he said.

"There are things we can do together that we can never do alone,'' Murphy said.

Route 7 links the hospitals.

"We're not that far away from each other,'' Mr. DeBarba said. "It means people can be treated in their own home towns. They won't have to go to New York City or New Haven.''

Mr. DeBarba said Norwalk Hospital's leaders looked at all the other possible alliances in the state, and out of the state, before deciding the affiliation with Western Connecticut Health Network made the most sense.

For one thing, he said, both organizations now are fiscally strong, with excellent staffs. It makes sense to join together now, he said, when both organizations can benefit from those strengths.

If it were to prosper, would other hospitals link with the network as well?

"We have to get this right,'' Dr. Murphy said.

That's where its attention must be in the immediate future, he said.

For beyond the here and now?

"We won't shut our eyes, either,'' he said.

bmiller@newstimes.com; 203-731-3345