Partners for Life

The story behind how Cabell Huntington Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center joined forces to improve healthcare in the Tri-State region and beyond.

By Jack Houvouras and James E. Casto

It didn’t happen overnight. Far from it.

But after nearly four years of debate and delay, Cabell Huntington Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center have now officially joined forces as partners in a new healthcare system.

“Uniting for a common purpose is really powerful,” said Dr. Kevin Yingling, chairman of the Cabell Huntington Hospital Board of Directors. “Unification will provide a pathway to outcomes and successes not possible if we remained separate.”

“Members of the medical community, business community and community at-large have maintained the vision of creating a medical system that benefits the community by improving quality, access and affordability,” Yingling said. “We are committed to working with these separate organizations to build a regional system that will exceed your expectations.”

Community is an important word in this landmark deal that unites the region’s two largest hospitals. By joining forces, the two entities knew they could maintain autonomy and prevent being acquired by a national, for-profit hospital chain that would choose profits over patient care. Of the 1,412 hospital mergers in the United States between 1998 and 2015, nearly 40 percent occurred after 2009, according to data published in the journal, Health Affairs.

Brent Marsteller, the president and CEO of Cabell Huntington Hospital from 2000 - 2014, was a key player in the acquisition of St. Mary’s. His tenure saw millions of dollars in capital improvements and the growth of numerous programs. It was during his last year at the hospital that Cabell Huntington and Pallottine Health Services signed a definitive agreement.

“Just as we have successful partnerships with Marshall University and Pleasant Valley Hospital, Cabell Huntington Hospital has sought collaborations with others who share a vision to provide the residents of this region and beyond access to highly specialized, compassionate care,” Marsteller explained. “The consummation of this acquisition is an historic event for this region, and one that I’m very proud to have been a part of. It’s truly gratifying to finally see the acquisition completed so that the hospitals can work together to deliver the highest quality care in the most cost effective and efficient manner.”

“Although I could point out many specific advantages of this acquisition-merger, perhaps most importantly it presents an opportunity to establish a world-class medical center in Huntington,” said Joseph I. Shapiro, M.D., dean of the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. “By combining and leveraging the respective strengths of the two hospitals, we are going to be able to grow the clinical, educational and research activities of the physicians and other healthcare workers who practice here. In turn, we will be able to more effectively and efficiently address the many health challenges that disproportionately affect the Tri-state region.”

The proposed acquisition made headlines and remained very much in the news as the agreement moved forward, attracting supporters and opponents and ending up in court.

But the legal questions were successfully resolved, and the final step clearing the way for completing the deal was Vatican approval, which came earlier this year.

“Due to the declining number of sisters in our community, we are no longer able to continue our healthcare ministry,” said Sister Mary Grace Barile, SAC the provincial of the Pallottine Missionary Sisters at St Mary’s. “We are transferring the leadership of our healthcare ministry to Cabell Huntington Hospital for the benefit of the community and the patients we both serve.”

“We are excited about the benefits the community and patients will  experience with this transaction,” she said. “The Vatican approved the transaction with the understanding that the values and mission established by the Pallottine Sisters will continue at St. Mary’s.”

Kevin Fowler, president and CEO at Cabell Huntington, said the agreement provides an opportunity for both hospitals to work together and share the best practices in quality and patient experience that will move care in the region to the next level.

“We look forward to continuing as independent entities, yet challenging each other to improve specialized services, implementing new technologies and defining the future healthcare for this region and beyond,” Fowler said.

Michael Sellards, president and CEO of St. Mary’s, noted that it has grown to be “the seventh largest corporation in the state of West Virginia. If you were to ask the reasons for that, I could tell you that a core reason was the guiding hand and constant guiding principles of the Pallottine Sisters. So when they were forced to make the difficult decision of selling the hospital, they decided they had to find just the right partner to carry that mission forward.”

“Over the course of a number of months, through due diligence, a national search was convened to find that right partner,” Sellards said. “As it turned out, we didn’t have to go 2,000 miles to find the right partner. We didn’t have to go 200 miles to find the right partner. We didn’t even have to go 20 miles to find the right partner, because two miles from the core of St. Mary’s is Cabell Huntington Hospital, and that is the right choice.

“Cabell is the right choice for the community, the right choice for our employees and our physicians and, more importantly, it is the right choice for our patients,” he said. “And as they say, Cabell will be our partners for life!”

Monte Ward, Cabell Huntington’s senior vice president and chief acquisition and financial officer, said the driving force behind the transaction is to deliver access to the highest quality care in the most cost-effective and efficient manner.

“Reducing healthcare costs while improving the specialized services offered at both facilities is essential to long-term sustainability in this new healthcare environment,” Ward said. “By complementing our unique strengths, we can invest dollars locally and bolster the region’s economic vitality. The significance and reputation of Huntington as a healthcare destination can be a driver of economic growth. Our goal is not just to survive, but to thrive.”

Yingling said that with the completion of the transaction, the process can begin to create a comprehensive healthcare system for the region.

“The first step in that process has been taken with the naming of Gary White to serve as interim CEO of the new system,” he said.

The owner of JRW, LLC, a consulting firm that provides management and transaction services, White served as interim president of Marshall University in 2015 after the sudden death of President Stephen Kopp. In addition, he is a member of the Marshall Board of Governors, the former executive vice president of Blackhawk Mining, LLC, the former president of the West Virginia Coal Association, former member of the Cabell Huntington Hospital Board of Directors and a member of the Business Hall of Fame at the Marshall University Elizabeth McDowell Lewis School of Business. He will be responsible for the operational and strategic planning of the two hospitals as they each become an integral part of the system, and he will be laying the groundwork for the permanent system CEO.

“Both St. Mary’s and Cabell Huntington will maintain their individual identities with a business model that aligns the organizations to become a regional healthcare leader,” White said. “Each nationally-recognized organization will continue to operate as a separate, fully functioning facility, while working together to provide the best technology, processes and expertise.”

He noted that early in the process of bringing the two hospitals together, all involved agreed on three basic tenants:

 

1. A commitment to superior quality care and the highest level of customer service.

2. Access to best technology, services and expertise to make Huntington a true healthcare destination.

3. Meeting the growing healthcare needs of the poor and the uninsured.

 

“Those have been our guiding principles and those will continue to be our guiding principles as we move forward,” White said. “We now begin the important work of creating a comprehensive healthcare system and delivering a higher level of specialized care and enhanced value through a more efficient delivery system.”

Officials have said that both hospitals will now move forward with plans outlined four years ago, which include adopting uniform best practices and common protocols, integrating electronic medical records, avoiding costly equipment duplication, recruiting highly trained physician specialists, and coordinating and implementing wellness and population health measures.

Marshall President Jerome Gilbert has hailed the unification of Cabell Huntington and St. Mary’s, saying it “is going to present tremendous opportunities for our medical school to enhance and expand its services, its scope of care and its medical research. I believe we will see a rapid evolution. There is the excellent chance the comprehensive medical center created by the full integration of Cabell Huntington, St. Mary’s and the Marshall medical school will become a destination medical center — along the lines of the top clinics and hospitals in the country.”  

Founded in 1956, Cabell Huntington Hospital is a 303-bed hospital. In 2012, Cabell joined Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and its practice plan, Marshall Health, to form an academic medical center. The hospital is home to the Hoops Family Children’s Hospital and the Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center.

At 393 beds, St. Mary’s is one of the largest healthcare facilities in West Virginia and home to St. Mary’s Regional Heart Institute, St. Mary’s Regional Cancer Center, St. Mary’s Regional Neuroscience Center and St. Mary’s Regional Joint Replacement Center. Opened by the Pallottine Missionary Sisters in 1924, St. Mary’s also operates St. Mary’s ER Ironton and St. Mary’s Center for Education, which houses St. Mary’s Schools of Nursing, Respiratory Care and Medical Imaging.

The decision by Cabell Huntington Hospital and St. Mary’s Medical Center to join forces should pay dividends for the residents of the Tri-State region for decades to come. As American poet Mattie Stepanek once wrote, “Unity is strength ... when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” By uniting for a common purpose, leaders at both institutions are writing a new and promising chapter in the history of healthcare in Huntington.




Jack Houvouras is the publisher and editor of Huntington Quarterly. James E. Casto, the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch, is the author of a number of books on local and regional history. His latest is Huntington Chronicles (The History Press, $21.99), which offers capsule accounts of many of the noteworthy people, places and events in the city’s history.  

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