Friday, September 4, 2015
By TERRY AHNER
This is exactly the way Andrew Harris, president and chief executive officer for the health system, likes it.
“Our focus has been, currently is, and in the foreseeable future will be, our strategic plan, which is that Blue Mountain Health System will continue to be a primary care health care entity serving patients of the Carbon County area,” Harris said. “You don’t need to merge in order to accomplish this.”
Blue Mountain has never had an offer presented to it from bigger hospitals, according to Lisa Johnson, vice president for public relations and marketing.
Harris added, “It gets back to the initial commitment we made when I came here eight years ago. We are here to stay, as long as the community partners with us, and we will continue to thrive.”
In May, Pocono Health System said it planned to merge into Lehigh Valley Health Network.
While the letter of intent was to merge, the merge itself has not gone through yet, according to Brendon Abbazio, Community Relations Specialist for Pocono Medical Center.
Abbazio said the merge was still in the process, as Pocono continues to do its due diligence with Lehigh Valley Health Network.
Julie Kissinger, The Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania’s vice president, communications and public affairs, lauded Blue Mountain for its approach.
“Hospitals make these types of decisions based on what is best for their communities and the health care needs in their region,” Kissinger said. “In some regards, Blue Mountain’s system was ahead of the curve in that if you look at our state trend, back in 2000, about 36 percent of PA hospitals were part of a system, and today, in 2015, we’ve got about 76 percent.”
Kissinger praised Blue Mountain for its foresight over a decade ago.
“While Blue Mountain hasn’t as an entity established another partnership with a larger system, back in 2004, they did an evaluation of what their community needed, and they balanced competition against the value of the two hospitals coming together to reduce the duplication of services, reduce costs, and increase access through more integrated services,” she said. “And so in doing so, they were early on identifying the factors that hospitals across the state and country evaluate in terms of decisions among partnerships, and that has worked well for that community.
“They’ve been able to increase their use of technology, been able to continue to expand outpatients services, and they have integrated care; they have a solid continuum of care, and this is what communities are looking for, and they’ve done it effectively,” Kissinger added.
Kissinger said Blue Mountain has been able to reduce costs, incorporate more technology, integrate its care and provide more outpatient services.
“They’ve made the assessment that this is at this point in time the best model for meeting the care in their community, and that’s the appropriate decision,” she said. “Health care delivery, there’s a constant evaluation of what’s going to be better for the community to continue to provide access and quality care.”
What exactly does Blue Mountain have to do in order to remain viable?
“Continue to grow and build our service, continue to partner with the community, continue to develop partnerships with other tertiary hospitals in the region,” Harris said.
Johnson said Blue Mountain is one of the lowest-cost providers in the state when it comes to certain diagnosis such as pneumonia, chronic heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, as well as surgical procedures such as a knee replacement, hip replacement, and gallbladder surgery, to name a few.
For example, Johnson said a knee replacement at the hospital would cost a patient $16,400. The statewide average for the same surgery is $26,000.
“The cost of living, efficiencies, and the quality of care we provide, all those things factor into what those charges would be,” Johnson said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on; high quality care at a reasonable cost.”
Harris noted that Blue Mountain and Lehigh Valley Health Network jointly provide different services, such as their Myocardial Infarction Alert program.
For instance, it only takes 82 minutes for their door-to-balloon time in regard to the program, while the national average is much higher.
Johnson said the door-to-balloon time is the time the patient comes to the door to the time they have a cardiac catheterization.
“It’s a huge efficiency to make sure that the patient gets the best appropriate care for the issue that they’re having,” she said.
Other services the two organizations jointly provide include tele-burn. If a victim comes in with a burn, Blue Mountain has high-definition cameras so that Lehigh Valley’s specialists can see the burn while they’re in Blue Mountain’s emergency department; as well as tele-medicine, a state-of-the-art medicine so that people don’t have to travel far for their care.
The MI Alert program started nearly 15 years ago before any kind of formal partnership, said Johnson.
Much like that of its contemporaries, Blue Mountain finds itself battling the same challenges.
“We face the same struggles,” Harris said. “We are asked to do more, and are paid less.
“It’s hard for us, as we’re paid less to continue to provide that high level of care, but we continue.”
Johnson cited Medicare reimbursement, and said cuts to Medicare reimbursement has hurt Blue Mountain as an organization.
Additionally, the government wants hospitals to attain certain benchmarks and efficiencies in a number of different areas through value-based purchasing, which hasn’t helped matters, Johnson said.
“What happens with an organization like us is since we’re so small, it puts pressures on us financially,” she said. “It takes us a lot more effort to reach and maintain.”
Harris noted that Blue Mountain has about 1,000 employees.
That includes both hospitals, the Summit at Blue Mountain nursing home, all of Blue Mountain’s cardiac care centers, its off-site locations, and its home-care.
From a fiscal perspective, Blue Mountain continues to hold its own.
“We have become profitable,” he said. “We expect to be closing out this year making a small profit.
Johnson said Blue Mountain attributes its growth to several factors, such as its in-patient admissions; for the first time in many years, its emergency rooms are showing increased volume; and the addition of programs and physicians to its health system so that patients can stay close to home.
“The key for us is not cutting services,” she said. “It’s growth and adding services that makes sense for our community.”
Harris said, “We’re a low-cost, quality provider. We’re providing high-quality, evidenced-based health care along with higher services. The key is partnering with other tertiary centers.”
Tertiary centers are those such as Lehigh Valley, larger systems that do things such as heart procedures, brain procedures, and have more expertise in areas that Blue Mountain cannot provide.
Ahmed M. Hasan, MD, who serves as president with the Carbon County Medical Society, and is also president of Lehigh Gastroenterology Associates LLC in Palmerton, and chief of gastroenterology at Blue Mountain Health System, said he believes Blue Mountain has managed to stay independent “because we’re a community hospital.”
“I think it’s very important for a community to have it’s own independent hospital,” Hasan said. “I think Blue Mountain Health System is fulfilling that.”
Hasan added, “We are right here; hopefully people realize what kind of advantage they have with local service, so that they don’t have to run to Allentown or elsewhere.”
“If the community supports us, and the physicians remain committed, I don’t think they’re willing to give up their independence, which is good for Blue Mountain,” he said. “As long as we keep Blue Mountain Health System healthy and independent, it’s good for the community.”
Blue Mountain Health System at a glance:
Gnaden Huetten Memorial Hospital campus
211 N. 12th St. Lehighton
135 Lafayette Ave. Palmerton
The Summit at Blue Mountain Nursing & Rehabilitation Center
211 N. 12th St. Lehighton
• Cardiac Care Centers, Lehighton, Brodheadsville and Tamaqua
• Nesquehoning Medical Plaza, Lab, X-ray and Physical Therapy Services
• Gilbert Medical Center, Lab and X-ray Services
• Albrightsville Lab & Rehabilitation Center, Lab and Physical Therapy Services
• West End Therapy Center
• Lehighton Therapy Center
• Bowmanstown Medical Plaza
• Home Health Care, Lehighton and Tamaqua
• Hyperbaric and Wound Healing Center