OPINION: Mission made a tough call, but it was the only one

Mission Health

Mission Health has a long and honored history as a top non-profit healthcare system, serving Asheville and surrounding areas since 1885. Given this history, it initially surprised many — including me — when it was announced that the Mission board of directors had signed a letter of intent that would bring the local hospital system into exclusive negotiations to join HCA Healthcare.

Since then, we have learned that without a partnership, Mission would need to cut $70 million per year to maintain its financial performance – an operating challenge that is unsustainable for the long-term. The absence of a strong partnership for Mission would likely also mean a reduction in services available locally, affecting access to care for western North Carolina.

I have spent most of my career working in the healthcare field. I was with North Carolina Baptist Hospital for 40 years, first as a cost accountant and eventually as President and CEO. I know firsthand —and all too well — the financial challenges that come with running a hospital system. Serving as the chair of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services has also offered me a different perspective on the evolving healthcare needs of communities across our state.

The healthcare landscape has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. According to George Pink of the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “More than 120 rural hospitals have gone out of business since 2005, and the trend has been accelerating since 2010.” Recently, more than one rural hospital per month closes somewhere in the United States.

We have also learned that Mission considered numerous other non-profit partners and its Board unanimously chose HCA Healthcare because the partnership represented the best opportunity for western North Carolina. Entering into an agreement with HCA ensures continued stability for this important institution and for the many residents who rely on it for their healthcare needs. Mission knows that meeting the health care needs of a community and its underserved populations often requires more resources than those that are readily available. A partnership with HCA offers the potential to bridge that gap, bringing increased coordination of care and economies of scale that will ultimately improve access to services for patients and local residents.

One of Mission’s core values is giving back to the community, and a partnership with HCA will allow it to continue to do just that in an unprecedented way. As a part of the agreement, a private, non-profit foundation will be created. It will be one of the largest private
foundations within the state and will be led by members of the community; its leadership chosen initially by the current Mission Health Board of Directors. This foundation will have the potential to provide tens of millions of dollars annually to address social factors that affect health, including behavior and lifestyle choices, transportation, housing, food access, early childhood education and more. Having such a large endowment with a local focus could be a game changer for the community.

Mission’s initiatives to improve services for patients and the quality of healthcare in Asheville have endured over the years, and its legacy of inclusiveness and community service will be maintained with this partnership. The best way to maintain the proud Mission legacy is by transitioning to a non-exempt structure and partnering with HCA. The advantages in scale and resources gained from this partnership will enable Mission Health to reach more patients and maintain its proud status as a Top 15 health system in the United States, a designation Mission Health has received six of the past seven years.

The Mission board should be commended for making the difficult, but responsible decision to enter into a partnership now and before financial pressure causes cuts in services and access to care. The partnership with HCA provides the opportunity for continued service to the community well into the future, while upholding the core values of Mission Health.

Mission Health has always been a part of the safety net for North Carolina providers and this partnership will enable them to continue providing valuable services to the residents of western North Carolina.

Representative Donny C. Lambeth, R-Forsyth, is the Chair of the House Health Committee for the NC General Assembly.

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