Rice, ACMC, CentraCare field questions about potential affiliation

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WILLMAR — Local decision-making and the effect on jobs were among the top concerns raised Thursday during a public forum on the proposed affiliation between Rice Memorial Hospital, Affiliated Community Medical Centers and CentraCare Health.

A crowd of close to 200 at the Willmar Conference Center, including hospital union members, business leaders, Willmar government officials, state lawmakers and interested members of the public, presented queries about employment, local governance, services and the overall vision of what the potential affiliation means.

ACMC Health, Rice Hospital and CentraCare Health signed a letter of agreement in May to begin negotiating an affiliation to jointly deliver health care services to the region.

The proposal released last month calls for the formation of a new not-for-profit entity that would be a subsidiary of CentraCare Health. The subsidiary would consist of ACMC and Rice.

One of the main goals of the proposed affiliation is to not only keep healthcare local, but to increase the access to specialized care.

"Our goal and aspirations are to enhance and improve our healthcare system locally in partnership with CentraCare. There are a lot of opportunities we can seize on together, and together there are lot of things we can do that we won't be able to do with each of us staying independent of each other," Rice CEO Mike Schramm said.

Many questions were raised about local control.

"Will our local board and (Willmar) City Council have any voice at all?" one community member asked. Rice is a city-owned hospital.

In the proposed leadership and government structure of the affiliation, the new company will have a 10-member voting board, made up of four from Rice Hospital, four from ACMC and two from CentraCare. That board, along with the co-leadership of Schramm and ACMC CEO Dr. Cindy Smith, will govern the new entity.

"When it comes to making those service decisions, we make those decisions locally as well. It is not that CentraCare makes those decisions and that is what you do. We make those decisions. That is the beauty of this collaboration," Smith said.

President and CEO of CentraCare Health, Dr. Ken Holmen, echoed those sentiments.

"To me the construct must be what are we doing to create a local environment so the decisions about adding programs or work-related issues are handled locally, and that is the commitment here," Holmen said.

There were multiple questions regarding the benefits, contracts and jobs of Rice and ACMC employees.

"All ACMC, Rice and Willmar Medical Services staff will become part of one team, under a shared leadership structure," Schramm said. "We've created a seamless, and as painless as we can, process to transition employees from their current role in the organization to their roles in the new organization," he said.

Willmar Medical Services is a joint venture formed many years ago between Rice Hospital and ACMC, a private physician-owned network in west central and southwest Minnesota.

Meetings with employees have been held to explain the new process, benefits and available retirement plan options.

Current union contracts, which go through next year, will be honored.

"I don't know we can be more transparent and straightforward than say the provisions in the contracts will be honored," Schramm said.

There are also no plans to use this affiliation as an opportunity to cut staff at any of the organizations. Another of the goals of the partnership is to be be better situated to retain and recruit.

"We need everybody. We need all the people we have. We want really qualified people. We expect to need more," Smith said.

All three healthcare leaders spoke about the uncertainty and unknowns facing healthcare today, and that it's important to plan for the future.

"If ACMC and Rice do not do this, within five to 10 years we will cease to exist," Smith said, adding ACMC has every intention of going through this affiliation, so it will continue to exist. "We are here to serve people. We want to take care of patients and we are committed to doing what we have to make sure we can continue to do this."

Going forward with the affiliation at this time, while both Rice and ACMC are on solid footing, gave them the opportunity to search for the right fit and plan for the future and sustainability of both organizations.

"We are in a position to pick our partner. And we picked our partner based on similar DNA. Having a similar mission, vision, values and a similar philosophy that we believe care being delivered locally is what it is all about," Schramm said.

CentraCare is a nonprofit that operates six hospitals, 19 clinics and six nursing homes in central Minnesota.

Schramm and Smith understand there is a lot of fear and uncertainty that things will change or that the local communities will no longer have a part to play in their healthcare. However, they believe they are doing the right thing for a healthy and robust future for the communities.

"We think we have the right partner and our goal is to provide things locally and support our businesses and our partners and our neighbors and friends. We are all on the same page with that," Schramm said.