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Health alliance, community members demonstrate outside Mercy

Frustrations sparked when Centura appears to withdraw from negotiations with cooperative
About 20 people gathered in front of Mercy Regional Medical Center on Tuesday to demonstrate against Centura Health, the parent company of Mercy Regional Medical Center, backing out of negotiations with the Southwest Health Alliance, a cooperative working to lower health care costs in the region.

Durango-area residents demonstrated outside the front doors of Mercy Regional Medical Center on Tuesday as the CEO of Centura Health, Mercy’s parent company, met with hospital executives, physicians and the hospital’s board of directors in a series of meetings.

The demonstration of about 20 people came after Centura Health announced last week a plan to lower hospital costs by an average of 20%, leading members of Southwest Health Alliance to write an open letter accusing Centura of leaving the negotiating table and effectively undercutting the alliance’s efforts to develop an insurance plan to lower health care costs in the region.

“They’ll do whatever they can to weed out any health care option that isn’t in the Centura system,” said Mary Oswald, a member of Southwest Health Alliance’s steering committee, at Tuesday’s demonstration. Oswald added that Centura was attempting “to squeeze out the community.”

Monique DiGiorgio, executive director of the Local First Foundation, the nonprofit leading efforts to create the health care purchasing cooperative, called on community members to meet outside the doors of Mercy at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to express their displeasure. The Southwest Health Alliance blasted Centura in a news release issued Friday, with the title: “Centura backs out of community health care plan.”

“Using the compelling story of the Sisters of Mercy to communicate their decision to disengage from our local health care plan is an affront to our community and the Sisters themselves,” said Ted Wright, chairman of the Local First Foundation board, in the release. “We are asking that Centura come back to the seat we prepared at the community table through the Southwest Health Alliance if they truly want to emulate the goodwill and community support that the Sisters of Mercy have shown to our community.”

Peter Banko, CEO of Centura Health, was in town Tuesday to meet with medical staff, executives and members of Mercy Regional Medical Center’s board of directors. At the same time, about 20 residents demonstrated outside the hospital, asking Centura to rejoin negotiations with the Southwest Health Alliance cooperative.

Centura Health’s CEO Peter Banko was scheduled to have a question-and-answer session with Mercy physicians at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday with The Durango Herald, Banko said Centura has been accused of “backdoor” dealings, but rate negotiations around reductions in Mercy’s prices have been ongoing on for some time.

“We thought long and hard about our decision,” he said.

Banko said Mercy’s reductions would affect its 35,000 customers – including the uninsured, self-insured and fully insured. People could see the rate cuts as early as this week for the uninsured, by July 1 for those who are self-insured or January 2021 for the fully insured.

Banko said Mercy has been in Durango since 1882, and it remains committed “to real, viable decisions that put savings in (community members’) pockets.” He added, “We’re willing to work with Southwest Health Alliance.” While Banko did not have specifics on what that could look like in the future, he said he would meet face to face with DiGiorgio on Tuesday evening.

Peak Health Alliance, a health cooperative in Summit County, is helping Southwest Health Alliance develop its own plan. Centura Health was one of the first to partner with Peak, which gave community members in Summit County negotiating power and lowered health insurance premiums for residents by about 20%. Centura referenced its partnership with Peak in a news release Monday, saying, “One size doesn’t fit all. What works in one community doesn’t work in all 17 of our communities.”

Banko said he had concerns about using Peak Health Alliance as a “middleman” in negotiations, which centered on lessons he said Centura had learned in the partnership in Summit County. Banko said the rate discounts it provided to Peak did not go directly to consumers and eliminated choice from the insurance provider market.

While Banko said Centura and Mercy were open to holding a community meeting, he could not commit to anything until Centura determined if “this really (was) a broad community issue.”

Centura’s announcement of its plan to lower hospital costs came as other health care providers in the region put rate proposals together to meet Southwest Health Alliance’s March deadline for filing to insurance companies. Southwest Health System, operator of Cortez’s Southwest Memorial Hospital, first began talking with the health care alliance in early January, said Tony Sudduth, Southwest Health System’s CEO.

After a couple of meetings, including a community forum organized Feb. 11, he said the hospital submitted its proposal to participate in the alliance last week. But with Centura introducing its own rate-saving initiative for Mercy, some worry the future of the Southwest Health Alliance is in jeopardy.

“They have to have Mercy in the network,” Sudduth said. “I think it will end the initiative if they can’t get Mercy back to the table.”

The Southwest Health Alliance has been leading an effort to create a local health care purchasing cooperative. But those efforts hit a major hurdle last week when Centura Health, parent company of Mercy Regional Medical Center, reportedly stepped back from negotiations with the alliance.

Like Southwest Health Alliance, Sudduth said he had no warning Centura would be introducing its own plan to lower hospital costs outside of the health care cooperative.

“Our proposal stands if (Southwest Health Alliance) decides to move forward with it,” he said. Otherwise, Sudduth said Southwest Memorial Hospital will work to pursue its own cost-reduction plan, similar to Mercy.

In a Montezuma County commissioners meeting Tuesday evening, Sudduth said Southwest Health System was working with the Western Health Alliance in Grand Junction to begin creating a health plan that could be localized to Montezuma County.

At the demonstration Tuesday, signs read: “People over profit,” “Fairness in healthcare,” and “What would Sisters of Mercy do?”

Suzy Phare, a steering committee member for the Southwest Health Alliance, said Tuesday the goal was to have Centura come back to the negotiating table, but she added Southwest Health Alliance would continue pursing its goal.

“I think there’s other options,” she said. “It’s not dead in the water, by any means.”

lweber@durangoherald.com

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