Search ends for hospital partner Northwest picks Sinai

services, staffs to stay on separate campuses

New governing board due

Health care

May 16, 1998|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Northwest Health System ended its year-long search for a merger partner yesterday with the announcement that it had chosen Sinai Health System.

The two hospitals said they would create a new governing board, with half the members from each, and a new central administration, but would maintain all current staff and programs at the two campuses.

"A general hospital is kind of like a supermarket," said Warren A. Green, Sinai's chief executive officer, in explaining why there were no plans to consolidate programs on one campus. "You can't operate a supermarket where everything is terrific but you don't sell eggs."

Robert W. Fischer, president of Northwest, said his hospital had selected Sinai in part because together "we have such an impressive market share" -- about half the patients in an area from Sinai's campus near Mount Washington in Northwest Baltimore to Northwest's in Randallstown.

The deal continues the consolidation of Maryland hospitals by bringing together two of the remaining single institutions. (They are "health systems" in that they include other facilities -- nursing homes, physician practices, even a fitness center.)

Details, including the size of the new board, the structure of the new management team and the name of the merged system, are to be worked out over the next 120 days before the deal closes. The two also plan to begin working on a joint strategic plan.

Northwest began looking around for a partner last year "for the same reason everyone else is looking at merging and becoming part of a larger system -- because hospitals can't continue to stand alone and be on a level playing field with HMOs," Fischer said. After considering the type of partner it wanted, Northwest invited proposals last fall from seven local nonprofit hospitals and systems: Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Helix Health, Johns Hopkins, St. Agnes, St. Joseph, University of Maryland Medical System and Sinai.

All but Hopkins responded. Northwest trimmed the field to four for interviews and two -- Sinai and GBMC -- for further talks and visits by a Northwest task force of trustees, doctors and administrators.

Complicating and slowing the selection process, Fischer said, was the fact that potential partners were themselves in other merger negotiations: GBMC with St. Joseph and Hopkins, Helix with Medlantic Healthcare Group.

The Helix-Medlantic combination was approved last week by both boards. GBMC and St. Joseph broke off talks two weeks ago after the GBMC board was unable to decide whether to go with St. Joseph or Hopkins.

"It's always a moving target," Fischer said.

The task force unanimously recommended Sinai, and Northwest's board unanimously agreed Thursday night, according to Fischer.

Northwest's choice of Sinai "makes sense for a lot of reasons," said Nelson Sabatini, a vice president of University of Maryland Medical System. The hospitals "have a common border," and Sinai's teaching and specialty care programs complement Northwest's strength as a community hospital, he said.

Northwest could bring to Sinai patients in need of services Northwest doesn't offer, ranging from obstetrics to open-heart surgery, said Dr. Scott Rifkin, chairman of Doctors Health System, a large physician group. Also, he said, Northwest has "better demographics." According to data from the Health Services Cost Review Commission, 10.7 percent of Sinai's patients in the last fiscal year were uninsured, compared with 7.1 percent at Northwest.

"They are the two hospitals that cater to the Jewish population," said Rifkin, who practices in Owings Mills. "The community has always seen them as their two hospitals."

Sinai and Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center, part of the Sinai system, will remain agencies of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and will "maintain Jewish tradition and ritual," Green said.

Fischer said Northwest, which is nonsectarian, will not change its practices as a result of the Sinai deal. With many Jewish patients, it already offers services such as kosher meals.

While the first priority is to work through merger details, Northwest and Sinai will eventually consider deals with other hospitals. "It is inconceivable that any action in the marketplace is the end of anything," Green said.

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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