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Merger between UHC, Fairmont General still a possibility?

by Jim Fisher

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Despite state Health Care Authority approval for a new United Hospital Center, some state and local health care officials still believe a merger or other deal with Fairmont General Hospital is the best solution.

Even though United Hospital Center's application has been approved and a hearing on a similar plan by FGH isn't scheduled until January, Health Care Authority Chairwoman Sonia Chambers said the authority is holding out hope that some kind of a deal can be struck.

Among the options are a merger or a cooperative arrangement that would maintain a small primary care and outpatient hospital in Marion County, Chambers said.

"Despite the best efforts of a lot of people, that doesn't appear to be workable in the near future," Chambers said during a press conference Friday to announce state approval. "Fortunately, we have a very good alternative. UHC has a history of low-cost, quality health care."

Officials within the West Virginia United Health System, of which UHC is a part, also believe a merger is a possibility.

"Although this (announcement) ends our Certificate of Need application, it doesn't end our efforts to work with the people of Marion County and others in North Central West Virginia to create the best health care possible," said Tom Jones, WVUHS chief operating officer.

"We recognized that responsibility early on, and we won't shut the door," he said.

But a small clinic or other cooperative effort that leaves Marion County without a complete hospital doesn't seem to be of much interest to the Marion County facility.

"The board of Fairmont General is still committed to the medical staff, and the medical staff is still committed to providing medical services to the people of Marion County," said Richard Graham, president and CEO of Fairmont General Hospital. "Anything less than a full-service hospital isn't something that would bring the board of directors back to the table."

The new 11-story hospital along Interstate 79 in Bridgeport will replace the current facility in Clarksburg. It will have 318 inpatient beds -- the same number the hospital has now -- but will have 100 beds for outpatients compared with the current 40.

UHC President Bruce Carter has maintained for months that the hospital layout will better serve the majority of patients. As health care needs shift, he has said, so do health care facilities.

Chambers agreed.

"Health care has changed at a breathtaking pace over the last 20 years. It used to be, you had to go to a teaching hospital for an MRI or cardiac catheterization. Now that's something you expect at almost every hospital," Chambers said.

"When you're looking at replacement facilities, you have to look at what health care will look like in the future, not just tomorrow or next week," she said. "I think the UHC Certificate of Need application has that vision of health care for the next 50 years."

Chambers acknowledged Friday that the five months since UHC's three-day hearing have not been easy. The idea of UHC moving has been contentious on many fronts, from Clarksburg city leaders and residents to Marion County citizens and health care officials.

"We needed to go back to our core mission -- high-quality health care while keeping costs down," Chambers said. "Everybody who comes to us is absolutely convinced their CON is absolutely the best thing for their institution. We had to try and step back, to look at what's best for the broader region."

Friday's announcement could affect Fairmont General Hospital's plans to sell to Triad Hospitals Inc., a Texas-based for-profit outfit. That hospital also wants to build a new facility along Interstate 79, just miles to the north of the new UHC.

The authority is scheduled to hear from Fairmont General about its application on Jan. 29 and 30.

"We're still having our hearing in January. We still expect to put on a compelling case and we still expect to be successful," Graham said.

Staff writer Jim Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com

The Associated Press contributed to this story.