Helix Health joins the big leagues

June 04, 1995|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Writer

Think of big Baltimore hospital health systems and Johns Hopkins usually comes to mind.

But Hopkins has an up-and-coming rival, Helix Health, a little-known organization that might be your future source of medical care.

Helix is a striking illustration of how hospitals are changing. Traditionally as independent as cats, they're joining forces to compete for insurance contracts.

These hospital alliances strive to offer a complete package of health services and make them available in all the communities where insurers' subscribers live.

But Helix is unique in Baltimore. Instead of just signing contracts with each other, four hospitals have merged -- Good Samaritan, Union Memorial, Franklin Square and Church Home -- to create a new organization.

Now, after a year of intense preparation, Helix is ready to begin this large-scale experiment and demonstrate that it can produce better results than its individual parts.

Consumers stand to gain more consistently high-quality care delivered at a lower cost, Helix officials say.

Administrative and financial operations of the four hospitals have been consolidated. Inefficient and duplicative health services will eliminated. Exemplary services, such as the hand surgery department at Union Memorial, will be expanded.

In addition to regular hospital services, Helix offers a package that includes a network of primary and specialty doctors, nursing home beds, rehabilitation and "subacute care" services that fill a gap between nursing home and hospital care.

While the Hopkins Health System is the biggest overall, with more than 1,600 beds, 8,432 nonmedical employees and revenues exceeding $800 million, Helix is a growing giant: 1,300 hospital beds, 9,300 workers and more than $500 million in revenues.

If Helix is as successful as its executives expect, it will outlast many of the looser alliances of independent hospitals.

If Helix fails, Good Samaritan might take down the street sign outside its entrance, Oakey Way.

James A. Oakey, for 21 years the president and chief executive of Good Samaritan, has held those titles at Helix since last July. He's responsible for pushing forward consolidation plans conceived eight years ago.

On July 1 Helix will begin its first year under a consolidated, $556 million budget. On Aug. 1 Helix will begin providing services as a system to HMOs and other insurers.

"We're talking with virtually everyone and very serious with several of the major" insurers, says Dr. William L. Thomas, chairman of HelixCare, which handles contracting. Insurers will buy a package of services, paying a fixed fee per subscriber.

There's just one problem. "We are approaching the same size as the Hopkins Health System and, isn't that interesting, nobody even knows who we are," Mr. Oakey says.

That will soon change. This former Navy pilot will take to the air in mid-June in a series of television commercials intended to introduce Helix.

"I am literally doing the quasi-Frank Perdue thing," Mr. Oakey says, referring to the Perdue strategy of starring in his company's commercials.

Mr. Oakey seems a bit embarrassed by this new role, insisting that his advertising team proposed it as the way to put a human face on the Helix organization.

Viewers will see the face of a 60-year-old workaholic who is blunt, earthy and universally described as "a character."

Mr. Oakey beams while recalling a legendary example of that "character" a couple of years ago at Good Samaritan. To drive home the need to control costs, he filled a briefcase with 2,000 $1 bills borrowed from the hospital and threw them into the air at a meeting with medical staff.

"You know damn well I'm not interested in throwing money around," he announced to the startled doctors.

He's saying that at Helix as well. While Mr. Oakey is wary of spelling out specific cuts in advance -- for fear of unnecessarily alarming employees -- he plans to make extensive changes during his five-year contract.

"We've got to get costs out of these hospitals if we're going to have a future," says this self-described "change agent."

He's referring to the growing competition for the business of HMOs and other insurers, which are shopping for health care bargains the way a family looks for food deals at the supermarket. Higher-cost hospitals risk being priced out of the market.

Many services already have been consolidated, including finances, purchasing, construction and legal affairs. Other services are coming together, such as human resources. Even the hospitals' separate pension systems will be unified.

Information services -- the central nervous system of an integrated system -- are undergoing a $28 million upgrade. Within a year, Mr. Oakey predicts, Helix will offer one rate for inpatient services at all its hospitals.

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