By MARY ANNE CASTRANIO, Staff Writer | Published February 4, 2010
With the future of U.S. healthcare uncertain and the increasing competition among metro area hospital systems, officials at the only Catholic hospital in the city, Saint Joseph’s Hospital, are working on plans to assure the continued vibrancy of the hospital’s mission. Saint Joseph’s, first established in 1880 in Atlanta by the Sisters of Mercy, is located in north Atlanta but serves patients from around the state because of its specialized services and Catholic focus.
According to a recent Atlanta Business Chronicle article, Saint Joseph’s is negotiating with “several competitors to create a partnership that would lower operating costs and improve the quality of health care in metro Atlanta.” The article states that the hospital is exploring the formation of a joint operating company to share services such as billing and information technology, negotiate better rates from suppliers, and potentially share physician networks and research facilities.
Kirk Wilson has been the president and chief executive officer of Saint Joseph’s for the past three and a half years. He confirmed that the hospital has been in an “exploration phase” for the past six to eight months and explained the methodology with which they are considering this next step for the hospital.
“First and foremost is our goal to maintain and sustain Catholic healthcare in the community,” he said, adding that the hospital must “continue with the sponsorship of the Sisters of Mercy, their good works and their mission.”
“Everything else is colored by that ministry and mission,” he said.
A task force of 13, including six doctors, two Sisters of Mercy, and five lay board members, has been talking to a number of other hospital systems.
Mercy Sister Valentina Sheridan, who is Saint Joseph’s director of mission integration, emphasized the importance of the Mercy mission and highlighted the possibility of reaching out to a larger community.
“Because Saint Joseph’s is a ‘Mercy’ hospital, founded by the Sisters of Mercy, we strive to live mercy every day with our patients—to be present, to listen, and to offer hope,” she said. “I look forward to this pending partnership as an opportunity to extend this compassionate outreach to the broader community.”
While Saint Joseph’s continues to be stable financially, Wilson said it would be good to have an even bigger foundation of support, “more legs on the platform,” especially with the uncertainties inherent in the healthcare system across the country.
He also emphasized the importance of the Catholic mission for the hospital. “We have chosen not to go the route of selling the hospital. … (We) nixed the idea of merger because we would lose our identity” as a Catholic hospital. He noted that there are no other Catholic hospitals in the city with whom to form a partnership.
A joint operating company would allow Saint Joseph and another hospital system to join some aspects of the business while maintaining “certain elements of who they are” and keeping some assets outside of the joint company.
Saint Joseph’s will have “more strength to operate,” he said, in operating together.
He said that the two absolute requirements for any agreement include the standards to which Saint Joseph’s adheres: Catholic social teaching and the U.S. bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.
These standards are “very prescriptive,” Wilson said. “We operate totally within these guidelines.” Any partnership has to comply with those standards, and he said that prospective partners are aware of this.
Deacon Bill Garrett, the president of Saint Joseph’s Mercy Foundation, asserted that the hospital is in strong financial shape. “Our balance sheet is one of the strongest, if not the top, then probably the top two or three” of hospitals in the region. He acknowledged that surplus “operating income is not something we’ve enjoyed recently,” so combining services such as purchasing and IT would result in cost savings and increase resources to use in new areas.
Wilson said that the hospital is being “proactive” in its search for a healthcare partner. “We’re going to have greater sustainability” and a “firmer foundation with a partner, as opposed to doing this by ourselves.”
The task force, with the guidance of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, will likely identify the preferred partner within the next 60 days, said Wilson. A letter of intent will be written, and exclusive negotiations will proceed.
Wilson said, “We’re trying to find a partner that will allow us to be who we are. If we can’t, then we won’t. … We are looking for a company that has a similar commitment to quality, community service and excellence. … We can strengthen each other.”
For more information about Saint Joseph’s Hospital, visit the Web site at www.stjosephsatlanta.org. Information on Catholic social teaching and the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services can be found on the Web site for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org.