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CEO: Christus May Establish Health Plan

SANTA FE, N.M. — After painting the town purple with signs showing its mergers and affiliations with health care groups around Santa Fe, Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center is looking at the possibility of creating its own health plan, according to CEO Alex Valdez.

He mentioned the possibility of an insurance plan during his first “state of the hospital” address at a hospital conference room to staff and community members Tuesday, saying it would help pull together all the elements of health care in north-central New Mexico.

But Lillian Montoya-Rael, president of the hospital’s board, cautioned, “We’re in the infancy of the discussion. We’re not expert enough to know what the opportunities might be yet.”

Valdez said he doesn’t know if Christus St. Vincent’s service region offers a large enough pool of potential enrollees to make a health insurance plan viable. But he said such an expansion might be desirable as federal funding to hospitals starts being based more on the health of their communities instead of individual services provided.

Health plans can influence community health, for instance, by stressing primary care visits, health screenings, vaccinations and other preventive measures.

“I’m not saying we’re going to do this ourselves, but we need to develop the discipline it requires,” Valdez said. “Under health care reform, we’re going to have to establish a close relationship with health insurers and providers.”

He said he had no time frame for when Christus St. Vincent would decide whether or not it will create its own health plan. The hospital is self-insured, so it already offers health coverage to its 1,200 employees, he added.

Such a step would be yet another increase in the influence the organization wields in the region’s health care. From 2004 to the current fiscal year, Christus St. Vincent’s revenue has more than doubled from $160 million to $332 million, and its workforce has increased by 600 people over that time, Valdez said.

He added that he didn’t know how much of that could be attributed to Christus St. Vincent absorbing other health providers into its system, and how much could be attributed to creating new jobs and offering new services.

“For all intents and purposes, we are no longer a hospital,” Valdez said. “We are an integrated system for health care delivery.”

Christus St. Vincent currently is licensed for 265 hospital beds, but, with Physicians Medical Center, a small hospital acquired in late 2011, it currently operates only 210 of them, Valdez said. However, it is looking at expanding its intensive/critical care beds, along with adding a possible 24-26 private rooms.

In other matters, Valdez said:

♦ The hospital hopes to upgrade its emergency services certification from Level 3 to Level 2 by June. The levels of certification relate to, among other things, how many specialists can be available quickly to treat a variety of emergency medical conditions.

♦ In a reorganization affecting 65 positions, Christus St. Vincent ended up with only 13 employees losing their jobs, seven of whom had been offered other positions in the system but declined to take them.

♦ Budgets will continue to be tight, with last fiscal year’s net operating margin at a “paper-thin” .07 percent.

♦ The hospital’s mortality rates have been reduced over the last year, with 31 additional lives saved beyond what would have been expected.

♦ Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center is among the top 10 hospitals in the nation with the lowest readmission rates for patients with congestive heart failure.

♦ The hospital recently opened a bariatric surgery program, which offers ways of short-cutting the digestive system to help people lose weight.

♦ More health educators will be hired to focus on helping patients manage their chronic diseases.

♦ After hearing complaints from its patients, Christus St. Vincent has asked its bill-collecting contractor to back off a little on its efforts, taking a little more time after patients leave the hospital before it contacts them for payment.

That said, Valdez added that more work needs to be done to improve patient, physician and employee satisfaction.

That gave indirect recognition to the hospital’s fractious relations with its health care workers’ union.

“Are we truly patient-centered and pulling in the same direction?” he said. “We have work to do. I’m comfortable acknowledging that publicly. Let’s get on the same path, and pull the organization in the same direction.”

Christus St. Vincent has an arbitration hearing scheduled Thursday on a grievance it has filed against the union, while the union has a Jan. 29 hearing on its own grievance, upheld by the National Labor Relations Board, that it has pending against hospital management. Both proceedings are at least indirectly related through disagreements over staffing levels.