Cancer care, medical imaging joint venture moves forward with hospital board approval

WILLMAR -- A new joint venture between Rice Memorial Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers will integrate the two providers' cancer care and medical imaging services into a single entity.

WILLMAR -- A new joint venture between Rice Memorial Hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers will integrate the two providers' cancer care and medical imaging services into a single entity.

The partnership, announced this week, becomes official on Jan. 1.

Officials with both organizations believe it will enhance their ability to provide oncology and imaging services that are high quality, efficient and coordinated.

"We felt that this is important to the community. It's also extremely important to all our physicians to have this coordination," said Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Affiliated Community Medical Centers.

Lorry Massa, chief executive of the hospital, said local services already are excellent, but the joint venture will help take them to the next level.


"We feel that now is the time to move forward with this strategic relationship," he said.

The board of Rice Memorial Hospital took the first formal steps Wednesday by voting to approve the joint venture.

Affiliated's board of directors also has voted to support the project. Approval is pending from the Willmar City Council, which has oversight of the city-owned hospital.

The joint venture is a significant strategic move both for Rice Hospital and for Affiliated. Not only does it set the stage for expanding two major services, but also it signals a commitment by the city-owned hospital and the regional multi-specialty clinic -- which together dominate the regional health care market -- to cooperate, rather than compete, to expand and improve services.

It's the biggest step forward in the relationship between Rice and Affiliated since 1986, when the jointly owned Willmar Surgery Center opened.

The surgery center has been "a success since its inception," Massa said. "I think that gives us great confidence that we can make this work."

Hospital board member Richard Engan called it "win-win for everybody."

The two partners each are investing the market equivalent of $17 million worth of assets -- equipment, personnel and space as well as intangibles such as patients, referral sources and third-party payer contracts -- in the venture.


Talks on the joint venture had been under way for months.

Initially, the focus was on cancer services.

"That was the driving force. We wanted a cancer center," Holmgren said.

Patients and families want high-quality cancer care to be available locally, he said. "People don't necessarily want to leave their community to go elsewhere at a time of high need."

Making it easier for patients to navigate through the complexities of cancer care also was a priority.

With an integrated cancer center, "people can have one point of contact. They can feel they're being taken care of," said Terry Tone, administrator at Affiliated. "It really becomes a summary of what the public already expects --it's integrated and it's one-stop shopping."

Then the concept expanded to include medical imaging services, which are provided both at the hospital and at the clinic.

Tone said the hospital and the clinic have competed in the past over imaging services. But as discussion progressed on the cancer care venture, it became clear that it would be better to integrate these services, he said.


"We have always had this discussion about duplication of services," he said. "This way the focus can be on where the services are, rather than who owns them."

Integration also will allow for more efficiency and a more unified approach, he said.

Tone and Holmgren said it may help with physician recruitment as well, especially for cancer care.

Rice Hospital board members adopted a series of resolutions Wednesday to help move the joint venture forward.

These included half a dozen agreements for professional oncology services, support services and management services. The board also voted to revise the existing Willmar Surgery Center agreement, expanding it to add cancer care and medical imaging and renaming it Willmar Medical Services.

Once the paperwork is finalized, there will be several next steps.

In January, architects will start the design work for developing an integrated cancer center on the west end of Rice Memorial Hospital. Radiation therapy already is located here; renovation will allow chemotherapy services, which currently are provided at Affiliated, to move here as well.

Massa said the plan is for the facility to open in the fall of 2008.


A job description must be developed in the upcoming weeks for a cancer center director and the hiring process will be launched. Someone must be selected as well to manage the joint venture's imaging services.

Over the next 18 months, staff also will make the transition to becoming employees of Willmar Medical Services. About 200 employees will be affected.

For patients, the biggest change likely will happen next fall, when the cancer center opens on the hospital campus.

"There'll be a visual identity. The environment will be different," Tone said. "I think once it's up and operating, the community will see some changes. We're excited to get it going."

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