Backus, Hartford HealthCare may affiliate

Norwich - The parent corporations of The William W. Backus Hospital and Hartford HealthCare announced Friday that they have begun talks that could lead to a formal
affiliation.

The two have signed a letter of intent to begin what is expected to be several months of discussions, said Keith Fontaine, Backus vice president and chief administrative officer. During those talks, officials from the two health care organizations will meet and exchange data on all aspects of their businesses, including financial information.

The move could help cut ever-growing health care costs and improve access to medical specialists and technology for patients in southeastern Connecticut, Fontaine said.

"Being part of a system definitely gives you economies of scale," he said.

Backus would become a partner in the Hartford HealthCare system, but Fontaine stressed that an affiliation "is absolutely not a sale."

"No money is changing hands," he said. "We would become part of their system, but continue to be the community hospital, and still have the board at Backus."

Hartford HealthCare and Backus already have a 12-year partnership with Hartford Hospital's Life Star helicopter. One of Life Star's two helicopters is stationed at Backus, which has the only state-licensed trauma center in eastern Connecticut.

Hartford HealthCare's members include Hartford Hospital, the Hospital of Central Connecticut, MidState Medical Center and Windham Hospital. In addition to Backus Hospital, the Backus Health System includes a home health care agency and primary care and walk-in medical centers in Ledyard, Plainfield, Montville and Colchester, along with a physicians group.

Eric Bailey of AFT Connecticut, the largest union representing acute health care workers, said he is concerned that patient care could start taking a back seat to finances and the bottom line, and that management could lose touch with daily patient services. He said union contracts usually call for establishing a labor-management team to address those concerns.

"Backus is a very financially secure hospital, so there's really no need to be skimping on patient care," Bailey said. "It's an ever changing world when it comes to hospitals and health care."

Rather than losing community-based health care, an affiliation with Hartford HealthCare would allow Backus to continue providing local care amid growing pressures of expense and health care reform, said Dr. Mark Tramontozzi, vice president of the Backus medical staff and a member of the Backus board of directors.

"For my patients, we would be able to continue to provide you with the health you get at the local level now, and then some," he said. "It's all about keeping the health care local."

Tramontozzi was a member of a six-person strategic planning committee, established over a year ago by the Backus board, that started exploring whether Backus should seek an affiliation. The committee worked in secrecy, without informing Backus staff or physicians affiliated with the hospital, he said Friday.

Physicians and hospital staff learned of the letter of intent Friday morning, the same time it was announced to the public. Bailey, the union spokesman, said he had heard rumors several months ago that an affiliation was being considered, but there was no indication in the hospital that it was under discussion.

The planning committee turned its recommendation over to the Backus board, which then worked in secrecy to consider alternatives before selecting Hartford HealthCare. Fontaine said confidentiality agreements prohibit him from disclosing who else was considered.

Elliot Joseph, president and chief executive officer of Hartford HealthCare, said his organization was "honored" to be selected by Backus officials for a possible affiliation.

"Backus has done such a wonderful job of serving the community for so long," Joseph said. "We're just honored that they're considering this partnership with us."

Fontaine and Joseph both said the two health care organizations share a "vision" that quality health care should remain at the local level. But while Backus is financially successful at this point, there is concern about the future of health care costs, regulations and technology.

Health care reforms also are expected to make hospitals play a larger role in responding to health issues in the entire service area, Fontaine said.

c.bessette@theday.com

s and Hartford HealthCare governing board. State and federal regulators also would have to approve the proposal.

Backus and Hartford HealthCare will schedule a number of focus group meetings with employees, physicians, government officials and regional leaders to explain the process. Meetings have not yet been scheduled.

What it means

Backus Corporation and Hartford HealthCare announce they are exploring formal affiliation of the two health care systems:

What is a health care affiliation?

If it happens, Backus would become a Hartford HealthCare partner, a member of the Hartford HealthCare network, which includes Hartford Hospital, MidState Medical Center and Windham Hospital.

Backus would retain its board of directors, the Backus name and local operations of the hospital and its affiliated health clinics and outpatient services.

Backus patients would have access to specialists in the Hartford HealthCare system and specialized care. In some cases, specialist physicians could see patients at Backus. If patients must travel to Hartford or other affiliated health care centers, medical records would be automatically available for a smoother transfer, Backus officials said.

The process

Backus and Hartford HealthCare officials will discuss details of their respective operations over the next several months to determine whether to sign a Memorandum of Understanding seeking a formal affiliation.

Affiliation would have to be approved by Backus board of director

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