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Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Carroll Hospital Center seeks partner

In an attempt to ensure Carroll Hospital Center will have the resources to expand and serve the community in the future, officials have launched a search for a potential partner. It's a strategic decision that's likely one of the most important ones hospital officials will ever make, CEO John Sernulka said.

An aggressive blueprint for the hospital's future, called Vision 2020, aims to increase the hospital's services within six years. This, coupled with the changing face of health care, was the driving force behind hospital management and the board of directors' rationale to seek another hospital or system to partner with by this summer.

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"We're looking for them to come in and help us achieve some of this Vision 2020," Sernulka said, "and to enhance our quality and make sure that Carroll's mission to serve the health care of the community is met in a bigger and better way collaboratively rather than us challenged under this health-care reform to try to do this on our own."

It's unclear at the moment what exactly a partnership would look like, said Sernulka, who served as the hospital's president for nearly 25 years. There are varying possibilities, some of which could come in the form of a joint venture where both entities collaborate and coordinate strategies, or the stand-alone hospital could merge into a larger system.

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"There's no one magical structure that we have in mind," Sernulka said. "We are open to a wide range of partnering relationships."

He could not comment on prospective partners, as hospital officials have signed strict confidentiality agreements regarding the search for a partner.

Nationwide, there's been a shift in health care with the focus turning to prevention, chronic disease management and admission rate reductions. Incentives are being offered in Maryland to hospitals that keep the community well. And business relationships are going to be critical to sharing the risks of new investments, Sernulka said, and it would be a challenge for a stand-alone hospital to function in that environment.

Hospital officials have perused case studies on partnerships completed around the country, and Sernulka said he believes larger health systems will be the key to how medicine is delivered in the future.

That's because mergers and partnerships have been completed within Maryland and around the nation.

The state-owned University Hospital transitioned into a private, nonprofit organization in 1984, forming the University of Maryland Medical System. It has since become a multi-hospital system, according to the UMMS website.

More recently, Upper Chesapeake Health's two hospitals - both located in Harford County - recently merged into the University of Maryland Medical System, according to a Dec. 9 news release.

Just about 45 minutes outside of Carroll and across the state border, York, Pa.-based WellSpan Health and Good Samaritan Health System in Lebanon, Pa., announced Feb. 4 that they would be exploring an affiliation. The purpose: Strengthening community-based health care.

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"Health-care organizations across the country have begun to affiliate as a way to offer their communities the highest quality of care at an affordable cost in this dynamic new environment," WellSpan Health President and CEO Kevin H. Mosser said in a prepared statement announcing the partnership.

And that's the thought process of Carroll Hospital Center officials as well, as they strive to align themselves with a partner that shares several core characteristics with the more than 50-year-old, Westminster-based hospital.

"Money is a consideration, but it's not at the top of the list because we are financially strong and stable," Sernulka said. "We want to know that the entity that's aligning with us also is financially stable. We're putting culture and quality and serving our community above money."

That means the hospital is not for sale, though officials have not necessarily excluded that notion.

Rather, it's looking for a partner that can help enhance the services the hospital provides, Sernulka said, adhering to the hospital's Vision 2020. This guideline emphasizes expanding services, bolstering information technology systems and tackling Carroll's top health priorities.

It calls for the creation of the first hospital-affiliated urgent care centers, adding surgery facilities around the county, growing the minimally invasive surgery program and more, hospital President Leslie Simmons said in a September interview.

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A partner would use its already established programs as a model to help Carroll Hospital Center achieve these goals, as well as a possible financial investment in these expanded services, Sernulka said.

And the search for the right fit is underway.

The Board of Directors, along with hospital management, decided to seek a potential partner two months ago. On Tuesday, they finished drafting a 75-page document detailing the hospital's history, finances, culture, achievements and more. A hired consultant is distributing the document to various hospital systems.

The responses will be evaluated using a detailed checklist and strict criteria, likely whittling the candidates down to the top two or three, according to Sernulka. Next, negotiations on the best agreement and fit will take place with a final decision likely to be reached between July and September.

"We have a detailed and exacting process outlined and we are not prejudging the outcome," Simmons, who will take the helm as CEO and president next year, said in a statement. "Our goal is to continue being a great hospital offering the highest quality of care for our community."

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Afterward, the partnering organizations will enter into a six-month process called due diligence, where both entities perform legal and financial analyses of one another. If all is well at the end of that process, a formal deal would be signed.

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Integration of operations, information technology and services is the last step, but it's one that could take at least a year or two to complete.

"It'll be a journey that we will be going through once we make our selection," Sernulka said.

The hospital model a potential partner would fall under is uncertain, and thus, so is how or if the workforce would need to be rearranged, Sernulka said, emphasizing that the hospital has never once performed a layoff. Instead, it typically downsizes areas through employee attrition.

"We will go through that same creative process," he said. "As far as partnering, we will be adding new services and programs so there will be opportunity for associates to shift from one area of the hospital into some of these new areas."

The mission of a potential partnership is to better the Carroll Hospital Center's services for its patients and the community at large.

"I see this as a huge win for our patients and our community," Sernulka said. "Not only are they able to stay in the community, but the level of services that they'll have access to will be, we think, amazing."


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