BWWMH Officials: UAB partnership could be win-win

Published 9:34 am Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A potential agreement between Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health System was announced last week and local hospital officials are optimistic that it could lead to an even brighter future for healthcare throughout the area.

According to local hospital officials, possible partnerships with larger healthcare systems have been in the works for several years. Legislation passed in 2016 allowing University Health Authorities to help rural hospitals, it paved the way for a possible partnership between BWWMH and UAB.

“We began looking at possible affiliations several years ago and we’ve spoken to many of the main players in our area,” said Tombigbee Healthcare Authority Board Chairman Rob Fleming. “We contacted UAB last fall and it was almost like they were waiting for our call.”

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The hospital and UAB have entered into a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that allows the two entities to exchange information and explore the possible relationship that could be formed between the two entities.

If a partnership is formed, it could be the first of its kind in Alabama.

“In the healthcare industry, this is something unique in our state. There has been a transformation in the healthcare industry and stand-alone hospitals are becoming a thing of the past. Everyone is looking to align with someone to remain viable within their communities,” said BWMMH CEO Arthur Evans.

During the MOU period, hospital officials say there will be a lot of information shared and many details to consider.

“It is a great opportunity, but there will be a lot of questions we are asking back and forth. We will basically be getting to know each and they will be learning about what we do and the needs of our area. There is still a lot of discussion and work to be done, including the legal framework on how this would be organized moving forward,” Evans said.

While locally the focus will be on preserving the financial well being of the hospital, officials said larger health systems, such as UAB, benefit from strong rural healthcare providers.

“They need rural hospitals. UAB’s bed capacity remains at 95 percent or greater on a regular basis. We have the ability to keep patients here for many things and that allows them to keep beds open for some of the more serious cases. We can do things to keep patients closer to home,” Evans said.

Still, local officials said a possible partnership with a larger system would help BWWMH in many ways.

“(A partnership) is hugely important for our hospital,” Evans said. “This is an opportunity to partner with the largest health system in the state, one with a great reputation, not just in our state but throughout the nation. It would give us so many other opportunities that we do not have as a stand-alone hospital in terms of recruiting physicians and offering family residency programs.”

Evans adds that the partnership could allow for increased programs and services, including labor and delivery that was closed at the hospital several years ago.

“(UAB officials) know we no longer have labor and delivery, but they also know that it is still in tact on the third floor. I would like to see it come back and feel there may be an opportunity for that, but only time will tell. It is certainly something that will be looked at,” Evans said.

Any agreement formed between the hospital and UAB would be considered a partnership, not a buy-out of the local hospital.

“If it happens, this would be a partnership, not an acquisition. It would be more of a new entity that is part of the university system,” Fleming said.

So far, those involved in the process are encouraged with the feedback they have received, including from the hospital’s staff.

“Even before we signed the MOU, we took questions from our staff about their concerns and UAB answered each question. So far, the staff has been very positive and looking forward to our progress and possibly being a part of the UAB brand in the future,” Evans said.

It has also been a team effort from the THA Board and the city and county governments that have specific interests in a strong local hospital, according to officials. The THA board formed an executive committee to study the possible transition with members from both their board and others in the community. That board includes Al Garrett, Woody Dinning and Charles Jones Jr. as well as THA board members Fleming, Allen Bishop, Thomas Moore, and Riley Wells.

Any partnership that may form would not only change healthcare in this area, but possibly setting an example to be followed across the state, officials said

“Even though (the legislation) passed in 2016, we would be the first. We could be setting the standard and we are excited to be on that leading edge in regards to how these type of arrangements would work,” Evans said.

“One of the main goals of this legislation was to help find ways to assist rural hospitals in remaining viable for the future,” said Will Ferniany, Ph.D., CEO of the UAB Health System. “This will be one of the first opportunities to utilize this legislation and explore ways in which UAB and Bryan Whitfield Memorial can work together to improve health and wellness in Demopolis and the surrounding region.”

(This article originally appeared in the Wednesday, April 26, print edition of the Demopolis Times.)