Lydia Rogers, a senior systems analyst at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, works from her desk at the hospital’s information systems department. (Staff Photo: Jennifer Parks)
ALBANY — Following through with plans to convert Phoebe North into a women’s and children’s center will be a focus for Phoebe Putney Health System this year.
Joel Wernick, CEO of the health system, said that a final settlement order from the Federal Trade Commission is expected any day to allow for that conversion to take place.
“We are restricted from making modifications throughout the campus,” he said. “We will have a year dominated by design, as we make sure we invest in facilities designed efficiently (to allow for a desirable) combination of quality and price.”
Following an FTC victory at the U.S. Supreme Court last year on its opposition to the purchase of the hospital — formerly known as Palmyra Medical Center — on the contention it violated antitrust laws, a settlement was reached in August allowing the Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County to retain ownership of the hospital and for Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital to operate it. At the time, the FTC said Georgia’s strict needs assessment criteria had Albany rated as “over-bedded” and that it was unlikely a new owner of Palmyra would be able to qualify for a Certificate of Need to operate an independent hospital.
As part of the settlement, Phoebe and the authority have agreed that, for the next 10 years, they will not acquire, without prior notification to the FTC, a general acute care hospital, an inpatient or outpatient clinic or facility, or a physician group practice of five or more physicians within a six-county region that includes Dougherty, Terrell, Lee, Worth, Baker and Mitchell. Phoebe and the authority have also agreed that, for the next five years, they will not file any objections with the Georgia Department of Community Health to the issuance of a CON for a new general acute care hospital in the same six-county region. Phoebe and the authority are not restricted from objecting to CON applications for other projects but have agreed to provide a copy of any such objection to the FTC.
Lastly, Phoebe agreed to provide annual reports of its compliance with these provisions for the next decade. Phoebe and the Hospital Authority also stipulated the acquisition of Palmyra might substantially lessen competition within the relevant service and geographic markets, and the settlement reserved the rights of Phoebe and the authority to contest that allegation in any other proceeding.
The agreement was subject to a 30-day public commenting period that ended Sept. 23. After that, the FTC was expected to decide whether to finalize the proposed consent order.
Some modifications may be coming to the emergency center at Phoebe North, Wernick said, as well as the opportunity to grow the pediatric sub-specialty presence — which is currently lacking in Southwest Georgia — as part of that campus’ development.
He said the costs involved with the conversion of Phoebe North are not yet clear, but it is expected to be in the eight-figure range.
Until the final order comes back, it is not clear yet what kind of time frame there will be as far as bringing those plans to fruition, but Wernick said thought is still being put into how to make the facility stand out. Officials are making visits to similar hospitals seeking ideas, including a trip this month to the Dallas/Fort Worth area to visit six or seven different hospitals.
“We are looking at pediatric concepts and emerging concepts from the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit),” said Tracy Morgan, vice president of women’s and children’s services at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. “We are seeing what everyone is doing. That’s where we are right now.”
The design phase will come next, Morgan said, noting, “We are seeing what is out there before making final decisions on design.”
Some of the elements are expected to include private NICU space and an expanded labor and delivery area. Consideration is being given to helping everything flow smoothly from the patient’s perspective, and some thought is being given as to — while expanding on the pediatric sub-specialty presence — also building on the child life perspective.
“(We are looking at) what will appeal to children and make them feel more comfortable,” Morgan said.
Morgan also said officials have recently learned that Ronald McDonald House Charities has deemed Phoebe North eligible to establish sleep rooms on the grounds, allowing families a space to decompress.
“We want this to be a destination facility,” she said. “(We will) do everything we can to be sure patients feel comfortable. We do want to make sure we get the facilities and health care needs, and keep them (patients and families) together. When (a patient) is in the hospital, you are taking care of the whole family.”
In the meantime, a replacement of the information system is coming at Phoebe’s main campus. The two-year project is expected to cost $35-40 million.
“It will ultimately allow for immediate access to patient medical records whether they are in the hospital or in the doctor’s office,” Wernick said. “The notion of paper will go away.”
The CEO also said increased focus may be given to nurturing opportunities for medical education, such as opening more slots on the undergraduate and graduate levels.
“We are continuing toward a strong commitment (on that),” he said.
While some minor renovations take place at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and the expected dissolution of the management agreement with Phoebe Dorminy Medical Center in Fitzgerald is ongoing, there may be a chance Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus will see some modifications as it continues to see a high numbers in outpatient and inpatient traffic.
“We have toyed with the idea (of bringing in) more outpatient services that might be needed,” Wernick said.
Meanwhile, many unknowns remain in the coming months and years as the impacts of the Affordable Care Act, sequestration and Georgia’s decision not to expand Medicaid hit health systems nationwide — including Phoebe — by forcing them to function on reduced revenue.
The most visible sign of those factors at Phoebe came in October when 160 positions were cut, including 33 management level positions.
“Our goal is to evaluate efficiency and eliminate costs at every opportunity if it doesn’t (impact) patient safety and satisfaction,” Wernick said.
On that vein, the partnership Phoebe entered into last year with xG Health Solutions — a Geisinger Health System affiliate — as a means to improve outcomes while also reducing health care costs, is about to come full circle with the implementation phase on those plans set to begin this spring, the CEO said.