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Merging two Eastern Panhandle hospitals viewed as positive move

September 02, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.VA. - A plan to merge City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., and Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson, W.Va., with West Virginia University Hospitals should provide local patients with more doctors, more services and better treatment options, local hospital officials said Thursday.

Because the hospitals will continue to operate individually for now, patients should not expect to see any obvious changes until January, when the new merged facilities are incorporated under the new name of WVU Hospitals-East.

"The potential for the future is wonderful," said City Hospital CEO Jon Applebaum.

"I view this as a very positive thing," said John Sherwood, CEO of Jefferson Memorial Hospital. "A main thrust of this is education."

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WVU has not been a stranger to health care in this area. The university already operates the Rural Family Medicine Center in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

Also, as part of WVU's Health Sciences Center Eastern Division, third- and fourth-year medical students from WVU, Marshall University and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine receive training in the Panhandle. Construction is to begin this month on the Eastern Division's two-story facility, to be built next to City Hospital.

The merger will call for more doctors and students to come to the Eastern Panhandle, which increases the chances of more private practices opening, Sherwood said.

With more primary-care physicians and specialists in place, fewer patients should be referred or choose to go to an out-of-state hospital for treatment, officials said. Currently, more than 100 residents of the Eastern Panhandle are treated each day at out-of-state hospitals for illnesses and injuries.

The merger does not mean that more patients will be sent to WVU's Morgantown, W.Va., hospital for treatment. Some patients have been and will continue to be referred there, but the merger will not increase the chances of that happening, Sherwood said.

When asked whether any existing employees should worry about their jobs, Sherwood did not give a definite answer.

"We're doing this to meet growth. We think there's going to be more work to do, rather than less," Sherwood said.

He said it is possible that some employees' jobs could be transferred to another location, and that their job descriptions might be altered.

"I can't say things won't change," he said.

Applebaum said only that no positions have been identified as ones that will be negatively affected by the merger.

Sherwood gave two practical examples of how more doctors and better technology will help patients.

Jefferson Memorial Hospital hired a radiologist last summer who is affiliated with WVU. That radiologist now can digitally send X-ray images to Morgantown, where specialists can immediately examine them.

In the hospital's obstetrics unit, three new providers recently were hired. As a result, the number of pregnant women utilizing the hospital has increased, Sherwood said.

Three years ago, a study that examined health care in Jefferson County found the hospital was not large enough to accommodate the area's growing population, Sherwood said.

The recommendation from that study was that a new hospital be built, but paying the $50 million to $70 million for it was not feasible, Sherwood said.

That prompted Jefferson Memorial to begin seeking a merger. A letter of intent to formally begin discussing a merger was signed in December 2003, Sherwood said.

"We think this is going to help us meet a number of the challenges," Sherwood said.

And what about the future?

"Down the road ... does it make sense to create one central campus? That's many years down the road," Applebaum said.

Once the new corporation is in place, a 16-person board of directors will oversee WVU Hospitals-East. Board members will include five existing members of each hospital's board, each hospital's medical staff president and the dean of the Eastern Division.

One CEO also will be named and will serve on the board.

A certificate of need, which is required in West Virginia if a hospital plans a substantial change in organization, was submitted Friday. The state's Health Care Authority has 90 days to issue final approval, Sherwood said.

A strategic plan is under way with PSI Arista, a consulting firm that specializes in health care and hospitals considering or undergoing a merger, both CEOs said.

WVU Hospitals is part of the Fairmont-based West Virginia United Health System. With the addition of the Eastern Panhandle hospitals, the system will be the state's largest health-care network.

Both local hospitals and WVU are not-for-profit institutions. The hospitals' boards unanimously approved the merger.

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