Highline’s proposed merger won’t affect care, CEO says

A proposed merger between the Highline Medical Center and the Tacoma-based Franciscan Health System would make the Vashon Health Center part of one of the largest health care systems in the state, according to Highline’s chief executive officer.

In a recent interview, Mark Benedum, Highline’s CEO, also said the merger will bolster the financially ailing Highline system, which lost $18 million last year. An improved fiscal picture could benefit the clinic on Vashon, which has long struggled to maintain a positive cash flow.

“As a non-profit, being profitable means you have money to invest in facilities and equipment,” Benedum said. “When you are losing money, you have no money to invest in the future.”

One of those investments might mean moving the Vashon clinic to a better facility, he noted. “That’s clearly on the table as something we would like to do,” he said.

The merger between Highline and the Francis-can Health System — one of many in the changing health care landscape — was announced over the summer. Benedum said the process is moving forward well. He expects all necessary approvals will be granted and the merger to be fully in place by next spring or summer.

The Franciscan system is part of the larger Colorado-based Catholic Health Initiatives, and some on Vashon have questioned the repercussions of a secular system merging with a Catholic one, particularly regarding issues related to women’s reproductive health.

But Benedum said patients will not notice a change; the Franciscan position is that issues such as birth control and abortion are concerns between a woman and her health care provider, he said.

“Within the clinic, it’s not going to change a thing,” he said.

At the Vashon clinic, manager Rita Cannell said Highline officials recently provided the same information to clinic personnel and noted that she, too, has been told that women’s health care will be unaffected when the two systems join.

After-hours care will also continue after the merger, Benedum said.

“On an island subject to a ferry schedule, I think it is a necessity,” he said.

Benedum credited Gran-ny’s Attic and its support in preserving round the clock care, stressing that such care is unusual these days in a primary care clinic. That service is funded, in part, by Granny’s Attic, which gives $9,000 each month to Highline, according to Cannell. Much of that money is earmarked for the Consulting Nurse Services and to have a provider available on call after hours, she said.

The reason behind the planned merger is financial, according to Benedum. Highline’s losses, according to news reports, stem from fewer patient visits, more charity care and an increasing amount of unpaid patient bills. With the merger, both organizations are expected to save money by sharing resources, expanding buying power and delivering care by sharing best practices.

Larger health care systems are a sign of the times, Benedum said. Last year a survey showed there were just five independent hospitals in the state, Highline among them. One of the other four is also now seeking to merge, he said.

Highline Medical Center, based in Burien, was established in 1958 and includes a 154-bed acute care hospital, a 115-bed specialty center and more than 20 clinics, most of them in the West Seattle-Burien region. It employs roughly 1,500 people.

In contrast, the Fran-ciscan Health System consists of five area hospitals, including St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma and St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor, a hospice facility and several clinics and providers in Pierce, King and Kitsap counties; the Franciscan system employs 8,300 people. Its parent company, Catholic Health Initiatives, meanwhile, is merging with PeaceHealth, and when that merger is complete, the newly created system will employ roughly 26,000 people and have 16 hospitals in Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

Once the Highline-Franciscan merger takes place, a profit is expected, Benedum noted. What’s more, he said, Highline patients will be able to tap into a large network of specialty care clinics in West Seattle, Burien and Tacoma. The merger will also likely result in the installation of an electronics record system.

Cannell said she respects the Franciscan Health System and believes the merger will be good for Islanders.

“I’m excited about it,” Cannell said. “I think they will be a positive asset to the Island.”


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