Following nine months of state-mandated talks that failed to produce a merger with Elmira’s Arnot Ogden Medical Center, St. Joseph’s Hospital in Elmira has returned to its original goal of aligning with the Guthrie Healthcare System of Sayre, Pa.
Citing concerns about perceived duplication of services and a "medical arms race" between the two Elmira facilities, the state’s Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century — also known as the Berger Commission — had threatened in late 2006 that it would close either St. Joseph’s or Arnot Ogden if they did not begin consolidation talks in good faith.
According to a Nov. 2, 2007, statement by state Health Commissioner Richard F. Daines, subsequent discussions between St. Joseph’s and Arnot Ogden did produce an agreement to provide enhanced primary-care services to Medicaid patients at each site and to share standardized practices to enhance high-quality treatment.
While dialogue between representatives of St. Joseph’s and Arnot Ogden "meets the letter of the Berger Commission recommendations,” Daines also wrote that, “we had hoped for more, and consider this agreement a missed opportunity to more fully integrate facilities to improve care."
St. Joseph’s spokesman Denis Sweeney said Jan. 7 that — based on Daines’ statement — it appears that St. Joseph’s and Guthrie Healthcare are now free to resume their discussions.
"Guthrie leaders and board members honored the process as set forth by the commission for discussions between Arnot Ogden Medical Center and St. Joseph’s Hospital. As a result, discussions between Guthrie and St. Joseph’s Hospital about an affiliation between our two organizations ceased while the discussions between Arnot and St. Joseph’s took place," noted a Jan. 10 statement from Mark Stensager, president/CEO of Guthrie Healthcare.
Since St. Joseph’s and Arnot complied with the state mandate and still failed to reach a merger agreement, Stensager added that "it is our belief that the restriction applying to discussions between Guthrie and St. Joseph’s Hospital is no longer in effect. As a result, it is likely that our two organizations will explore where things now stand.”
Sweeney and Kathy Lewis, spokesperson for Guthrie Healthcare, said they did not know when talks would resume between their hospitals.
St. Joseph’s had announced its plans to affiliate with Guthrie in November 2006. Guthrie had agreed to commit $54 million in funds to St. Joseph’s as part of the agreement, which was three years in the making. The Berger Commission mandated talks with Arnot Ogden just days later.
St. Joseph’s officials stated in the past that they had sought an affiliation with Guthrie in respect to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2001 Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, guidelines used by Catholic hospitals when considering a secular partnership. Guthrie and Arnot Ogden appear to meet most of the 72 guidelines, officials at St. Joseph’s said, but whereas Stensager has stated that Guthrie does not perform abortions, officials at Arnot Ogden have acknowledged their hospital does perform them.
Sweeney said St. Joseph’s and Arnot Ogden previously discussed partnership possibilities in 1987, 1995, 1996 and 2002 but failed to reach an agreement, chiefly because of ethical concerns.
St Joseph’s, an independent hospital, also favored a partnership with Guthrie to ease its debt. In early 2007, Sister of St. Joseph Marie Castagnaro, St. Joseph’s president/CEO, said the hospital’s debt currently stood at $29 million. She attributed the hospital’s financial struggles to its emphasis on providing care to uninsured and underinsured patients.
In spite of its debt burden, Sweeney said Jan. 7that the hospital is currently "going along fine, providing quality care," and had not been forced to make any severe budget cuts during the past year.