When Vancouver-based PeaceHealth and University of Washington Medicine recently trumpeted a new partnership, their announcement came with big plans to better serve patients and to coordinate care — all with the goal of meeting the looming demands of federal health care reform.
As details of the two organizations' strategic affiliation emerge, it's clear Clark County will play an important role in those big plans. And that role will come by way of the Family Medicine of Southwest Washington Residency Program.
Under PeaceHealth and UW Medicine's new venture, the residency program — established in 1995 in partnership with UW Medicine to bring new primary care doctors to live and practice in Clark County — will serve as a model as officials seek to expand the program primarily in Northwest Washington and Southwest Alaska.
Dr. David Ruiz, who leads the FMSW Residency Program and who will spearhead its expansion, said it's an opportunity to train a new generation of health care providers and to boost primary care for patients — all the while holding down costs, a key ambition of the Affordable Care Act.
"It's easier to expand what you already have than it is to build from scratch," Ruiz said. The extension of the residency program is just one component of a much larger plan to provide seamless care to more people.
Still, not everyone is a fan of the move by PeaceHealth, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church, and UW Medicine, which receives taxpayer support.
In a statement issued this week by nine advocacy groups — including NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest — critics called on the University of Washington Board of Regents to scrutinize the new partnership between PeaceHealth and UW Medicine "to ensure patients will continue to receive appropriate care free from the influence of religious doctrine."
Not all of the details of the partnership between PeaceHealth — which has facilities in Washington, Oregon and Alaska — and UW Medicine have been worked out.
The two organizations signed a letter of intent on Monday to launch a new alliance aimed at providing "patients throughout much of Washington and Alaska with access to the most comprehensive care available in the Pacific Northwest," according to a joint news release.
Both groups say they'll spell out the details of their partnership by Sept. 30.
The organizations aren't new to each other.
Peter Adler, chief strategy officer for PeaceHealth, said Thursday both organizations have maintained a strong relationship for decades. But the scope of their new agreement is perhaps broader and more ambitious than anything they've done before.
Its centerpiece, Adler said, is to have UW Medicine serve as PeaceHealth's preferred referral site for highly complex operations, such as organ transplants and treatments for trauma patients.
For example, a heart-transplant patient who lives in, say, Bellingham — but who can't have the procedure done at a PeaceHealth facility there -- would be referred to UW Medicine.
The care, Adler said, would be highly coordinated, with PeaceHealth and UW Medicine sharing electronic medical records to avoid inefficiencies and extra costs.
"When the patient and family arrive (at UW Medicine), they don't have to start over with their story or reintroduce themselves," he said. "That's the improvement in patient experience."
And once a patient returns home from such a complex procedure at UW Medicine, Adler said, the person's primary care doctor would be up to speed on everything, too.
Of course, he added, a patient could choose to be treated elsewhere rather than UW Medicine.
Adler said the agreement between PeaceHealth and UW Medicine is a "forward-looking" strategy as both organizations seek to boost the health of populations, as envisioned by the Affordable Care Act.
Adler said UW Medicine wants to expand the Family Medicine of Southwest Washington Residency Program, in part, because of a growing shortage of health care professionals, including doctors and nurses. A new generation of health care providers will need to be trained, Adler said, to meet the increasing medical needs of aging baby boomers.
In Clark County, the Family Medicine of Southwest Washington Residency Program currently serves about 13,000 underinsured or underserved patients, according to Ruiz.
The program's mission is twofold, he said: "To care for patients in our community who otherwise might have difficulty with access to care, and then to train the next generation of our primary care physicians."
'Watching very closely'
The announcement by PeaceHealth and UW Medicine comes after PeaceHealth and Catholic Health Initiatives said in April that they'd suspended their discussions about forming a partnership to create a vast new regional health care network in the Pacific Northwest.
Under their new affiliation, PeaceHealth and UW Medicine say, they'll remain legally separate and independent. Governance will not be affected, both groups say, and the new affiliation will require no government regulatory approval.
Critics of the talks between PeaceHealth and CHI say they remain concerned about the partnership between PeaceHealth and UW Medicine.
Monica Harrington, co-chair of Washington Women for Choice, said she expects the UW Board of Regents, and the state's governor and attorney general, "to be watching very closely how the deal is structured."
Adler said those concerns aren't warranted, noting the new arrangement between PeaceHealth and UW Medicine is "not a joint venture" and that "there's no acquisition or merger." He added that the new affiliation expands an existing contractual relationship between the two organizations.
UW Medicine provides primary and specialty care, and medical teaching services in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. It encompasses Haborview Medical Center in Seattle; Northwest Hospital & Medical Center, Valley Medical Center, University of Washington Medical Center, UW Neighborhood Clinics, UW Physicians, UW School of Medicine and Airlift Northwest.
Adler said the new alliance between PeaceHealth and UW Medicine will have no impact on an existing and robust relationship PeaceHealth maintains with Oregon Health & Science University.