Carroll Hospital, LifeBridge announce intention to partner [Updated]

Carroll Hospital Center announced Thursday its intention to partner with LifeBridge Health of Baltimore, a merger that enhances the ability of both organizations to offer new and advanced services to their patients, according to their respective CEOs, Leslie Simmons and Neil Meltzer.

The boards of both nonprofit health systems have approved a letter of intent to form a partnership. A definitive agreement on the partnership's specifics is expected to be completed by early 2015.

"We were looking for an organization that shared our desire to provide quality services locally, to invest in the health and wellness in our community," Simmons said. "The benefit to us is we will be able to have access to new programs and services we don't currently have and to have them available locally, both on our campus and in our LifeBridge network all together."

LifeBridge Health consists of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, Northwest Hospital, LifeBridge Medical Centers in Eldersburg and Reisterstown, affiliated facilities and numerous network physician practices.

Given LifeBridge's existent facilities in Carroll County, Meltzer said the partnership with Carroll Hospital seemed like a natural evolution.

"We have just under 60 physicians that practice in Carroll County, so we do see a lot of overlap in our communities. ... In fetal health, we accept some of [Carroll Hospital Center's] higher-risk deliveries, so we have already had very strong working relations," he said.

"We believe in partnership where it makes sense and when we heard Carroll Hospital Center was looking for a partner, we thought that, in terms of geography and values, it made sense for us to consider a partnership."

Mutual benefits

For Carroll Hospital patients, the partnership means a new array of services that will be made available at the hospital campus and in the surrounding community, according to Simmons.

"Probably the one [service] that will generate a lot of excitement is the establishment of a neonatal intensive care unit that would be here on site," she said. "There will also be development of outpatient ambulatory care services, additional urgent care centers … the ability to work with our current physicians and additional sub-specialties that we don't currently have."

One of the advantages for LifeBridge, according to Meltzer, will be the opportunity for some 2,000 of its employees and their families who reside in Carroll County to seek medical care within the Carroll Hospital network rather than leaving the county for care.

Carroll Hospital also has great expertise to share with LifeBridge in regard to the new system of medical billing in Maryland, known as Global Patient Revenue, according to Meltzer.

Since July 1, each Maryland hospital has been operating on a fixed budget set for it by the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission, according to the commission's Principal Deputy Director for Policy and Operations Steve Ports. Ports said the idea is for hospitals to reduce the number of preventable re-admissions by improving patient care, so that hospitals earn more money by being more thorough and efficient rather than charging more for services.

While this is a new experience for hospitals in the LifeBridge network, Carroll Hospital was one of a handful of pilot hospitals that began operating under an experimental form of the Global Patient Revenue system, called Total Patient Revenue, in 2010.

"[Carroll Hospital has] a significant focus on community-based care, and they have been a little bit ahead of us ... with Total Patient Revenue," Meltzer said. "We hope to learn from them about what we can do for our local community as well as how to manage under a global budget."

The search for a partner

According to Carroll Hospital Director of Marketing Selena Brewer, the hospital began exploring the idea of partnering with another organization in 2012, while still under the leadership of former CEO John Sernulka, who told the Carroll County Times in a February interview that he believed the future of medicine would rely on larger health systems.

He cited the precedent of similar mergers in the greater Maryland region, beginning with the 1984 transition of the University Hospital from state ownership to the private, nonprofit University of Maryland Medical System, which now contains multiple hospitals.

A partnership was also a way to provide the leverage needed to implement the changes specified in the hospital's strategic plan for the future, Vision 2020, which aimed to significantly expand the scope of the hospital's services by the year 2020, with a strong emphasis on wellness and providing care in the community outside the hospital.

Sernulka had previously told the Times that any partner for Carroll Hospital Center would have to share the values expressed in the Vision 2020 plan and that this was more important than any financial concern.

"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."

There was a financial component to the search for a partner, however.

The scale of the Vision 2020 plan required an additional $88 million over Carroll Hospital Center's expected budget between fiscal year 2016 and FY2020, and Simmons said the partnership with LifeBridge is a definitive solution for that funding gap.

"This partnership has just committed the capital resources we need to accomplish all of the ... goals of Vision 2020," she said.

The goals of Vision 2020 also align strongly with the values and goals of LifeBridge Health, according to Meltzer, and were one of the reasons the partnership made sense.

"We see LifeBridge as the perfect partner," Simmons said. "We share a lot of the same geography, we are both committed to providing quality services in the community ... and they share our vision for the future."

The structure of cooperation

LifeBridge was formed in the mid-'90s with the merger of Sinai, and Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, according to Meltzer, plus the addition of Northwest Hospital when they were looking for a partner in the late '90s. In all its expansions, Meltzer said LifeBridge has been selective, with facilities maintaining their own character while also providing an expanded continuum of care for patients in their communities.

"We believe in smart strategic growth, not just growth for the sake of growth," he said.

The LifeBridge partnership with Carroll Hospital will be equitable with both Simmons and Meltzer retaining their present roles as president and CEO of their respective organizations. Additionally, Simmons will take a seat on the LifeBridge board, and Meltzer will take a seat on the board of Carroll Hospital Center.

Neither Simmons nor Meltzer could comment on whether any money would be exchanged as part of the deal, citing confidentiality agreements.

While Carroll Hospital Center will retain its autonomy, Simmons said there will be some cosmetic changes, not all of which have been determined at this point.

"What you will see over time is that Carroll Hospital Center will maintain its name, but we will become a member of the LifeBridge health system," she said. "You are likely to see something like 'Carroll Hospital, a LifeBridge Health Center.' "

The two organizations will now begin a process of negotiations that Simmons hopes will result in a final agreement by February or March. If all goes as anticipated, the first new services and renovations at Carroll Hospital Center, such as the neonatal intensive care unit, could be seen as soon as late 2015 or early 2016.

"We've completed our letter of intent, and now it is time for the due diligence process where we methodically go through that and develop the definitive agreement," she said. "I don't expect any prolific changes except for the merging of two great organizations coming together to serve the community, and we will do that in a very collaborative way."

Reach staff writer Jon Kelvey at 410-857-3317 or