Health care systems lead the way in regionalization

Medical Center of Central Georgia, Navicent Health.
Medical Center of Central Georgia, Navicent Health. bcabell@macon.com

There are times when pigs fly, Hell freezes over and you get blood from a stone. In the not-too-distant past, if someone had just mentioned a “strategic combination” between the Medical Center of Central Georgia (Navicent Health) and Houston Healthcare, the idea would have been met with derision on both sides of Echeconnee Creek. The announcement Thursday that the two health care systems were exploring ways to join forces should tell us just how much the health care landscape has changed and is expected to change in the future.

While the days of competition between health care systems and other specialized care operators is far from over, in fact it’s getting more intense, cooperation on the local level can have many benefits, for providers, but most importantly, patients.

In an interview Thursday with Ninfa Saunders, Navicent’s president and CEO and Charles Briscoe, the chief operating officer and vice president of Houston Healthcare, both executives agreed that they are seeking to create a “local high performing organization,” that would “improve access and quality of care” for the people they serve.

It was also clear to both executives that they were embarking on a journey that will leave a lasting legacy. “The region will never be the same again,” said Saunders.

It’s clear that larger health care organizations can better weather the ebbs and flows of one of the most complicated businesses on the planet. Many experts say organizations in this space need assets of $2 billion or more to survive in the ever-changing world of 21st century health care. And if this “strategic combination” comes to pass, and we have no doubt that it will, the combined organization with facilities in Macon, Peach County, Baldwin County, Monroe County and Perry, will be getting closer to that magic number.

Houston Medical Center emergency room Jason Vorhees jvorhees@macon.com

This “strategic combination” is also an example of something that has been talked about for decades but rarely implemented: Regionalization. We’ve discussed the necessity of acting regionally, but for many odd reasons — it has never happened. Until now.

Regular people act regionally all of the time. The workforce at Robins Air Force Base comes from more than 50 Middle Georgia communities. Other employers, from Frito Lay to Graphic Packaging to the Houston and Bibb counties school systems have employees who call cities all over Middle Georgia and beyond, home.

Could it ever happen that our elected officials would come together and join forces and get rid of the artificial lines that separate communities that are only a stone’s throw apart? It’s been tried before.

In 1995, Gov. Zell Miller appointed a 30 member Future Communities Commission authorized by the state Legislature. Members included then-state House Majority Leader Larry Walker of Perry, state Rep. Robert Reichert of Macon, Macon City Council member Dee Shields, and Houston County Commission Chairman Sherrill Stafford.

At the time, Georgia had 159 counties and almost 2,000 government entities, including city, county, school districts and various authorities, plus 636 local constitutional officers. The Future Communities Commission wasn’t the first attempt at paring down the number of governments, two prior attempts had failed.

What happened to the Future Communities Commission effort?

Somewhere in the state Capitol a final report from the commission sits on a shelf gathering dust. It never saw the light of day and no other governor has even whispered about an effort to consolidate — on a wide scale — the state’s many governments.

Interesting note: Only one of the local officials named to the commission ever saw any part of its vision come to reality while in office, and Reichert could not have known that he would be mayor of Macon when it consolidated with Bibb County. Walker had retired from the Legislature, Shields from council and Chairman Stafford would pass away in 2000.

Could Macon-Bibb, Houston, Peach, Crawford and Twiggs counties come together as we are about to see the area’s largest health care providers? They serve the same populations.

If two sprawling, complicated enterprises with thousands of highly-skilled employees and millions of dollars worth of equipment, real estate and other assets can do it, what about our local governments?

When pigs fly.