In an effort to broaden its patient population, Baltimore's Sinai Hospital has purchased LibertyMed Inc., a small primary care practice in Eldersburg.
Sinai's acquisition reflects a trend among hospitals and health care networks to establish partnerships with primary care physicians to compete for managed care health contracts.
"I don't know of any hospital in the Central Maryland region that isn't acquiring primary care practices at this time," said Neil M. Meltzer, a senior vice president at Sinai Hospital.
"We're seeing more and more patients from Carroll County, and our intention is to offer care to individuals closer to their home," Mr. Meltzer said.
When Sinai purchased LibertyMed in July, the practice's four physicians and other staff members became hospital employees. Sinai hired a fifth doctor for the practice and plans to add another in the next few months.
In addition, LibertyMed's doctors now have access to Sinai's resources, including specialists that will "rotate" through the Eldersburg office to see local patients, Mr. Meltzer said.
Sinai Hospital is a member of Atlantic Health, an alliance of nine hospitals in the Baltimore area that joined forces to be able to compete better for contracts with health maintenance organizations and other health insurers.
Primary care physicians and practices such as LibertyMed are a key element in any health care network because they are the gatekeepers to other health care providers.
"As hospitals and physicians are aligning and integrating, they're looking for ways to provide a continuity of care through a full spectrum of medical services," said Nancy Fiedler, senior vice president of the Maryland Hospital Association.
LibertyMed opened in 1984, offering "walk-in" medical services and family medicine.
Dr. Steven Billet, who owned LibertyMed with Dr. Elizabeth Schlenoff, said the sale of the practice led many patients to believe that the physicians are leaving the area.
"The doctors aren't going anywhere," he said.
Dr. Billet, one of the five doctors who started LibertyMed, said he and Dr. Schlenoff decided they needed to expand the practice to meet the needs of their growing patient load. But it wasn't financially possible for the small practice to grow on its own, he said.
"I would have had to come up with $1 million or $2 million myself," Dr. Billett said. "Now we're under the financial umbrella of a large organization."
Neither Dr. Billet nor Mr. Meltzer would comment on the sale price of LibertyMed.
Dr. Billet said some of LibertyMed's financial difficulties stemmed from the high overhead associated with running a walk-in facility. He said many patients used the urgent care services for routine medical services, much like an emergency room.
But Dr. Billet said insurance company reimbursements to an urgent care facility are $40 per visit, while the reimbursement for a visit to a hospital emergency room is $160.
"Insurance companies are beginning to realize that they can save a lot of money by getting people to go to a walk-in center instead of an emergency room," Dr. Billet said.
Mr. Meltzer of Sinai said the hospital plans to build a 15,000-square-foot facility for LibertyMed near its existing site at routes 26 and 32. The building will include office space for primary medical care, medical specialists, a pharmacy and radiology services.
Mr. Meltzer wouldn't specify if Sinai plans to expand further in Carroll County.
"If there are patients there, we'll make sure we have doctors there to see them," he said.