July 1, 2008

State Blesses Hospital Consolidation Plan

By Robert J. McCarthy, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jul. 1--The state signed on Monday as an enthusiastic supporter of the plan to combine Kaleida Health and Erie County Medical Center under one administration, with Dr. Richard F. Daines, state health commissioner, the top cheerleader.

Daines officially launched the partnership during a ceremony at the Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, fulfilling the mandate of the state Berger Commission to eliminate duplication and cut costs.

Although the agreement does not constitute a full merger, which was not necessary under Berger mandates, Daines said Monday that an advisory panel of physicians would generate plans for the most efficient use of facilities. That means the doctor- led group will recommend to administrators which services will be assigned to which hospital.

He also announced state approval of a Global Vascular Institute on the downtown campus of Buffalo General Hospital and said all the progress bodes well for a world-class health system with headquarters in Buffalo.

"Under this agreement, everyone gains," Daines said. "Together, Kaleida and ECMC will be able to focus on their strengths and apply their resources strategically rather than being forced to probe for each other's vulnerabilities and fritter away their resources in defensive, shortsighted tactics."

That virtually describes the attitude both parties projected in recent weeks with broadcast ads seeking to sway public opinion in favor of ECMC or Kaleida. But Daines and Robert D. Gioia, chairman of the Western New York Health System, which oversaw the consolidation talks, said negotiators, supervised by State Supreme Court Justice John M. Curran, came together in the last few days.

That effort, Daines said, resulted in a locally crafted health system rather than one imposed by the state.

"They join because leaders from the community and leaders from both hospitals stepped forward at a critical time and said that it was time for Buffalo to look forward, not backward; to aspire to greatness, not mediocrity; to come together, not wallow in division," he said.

Indeed, the agreement ratified Monday seemed to please everyone, despite the months of acrimonious charges and countercharges between ECMC and Kaleida. Dr. David Dunn, vice president of health sciences at the University at Buffalo, said it fits well into the university's plans to bolster its teaching programs while adding significantly to the local economy.

"It's the centerpiece for UB's 2020 program and for economic development in Western New York," Dunn said. "We think we can build a magnet here -- an education magnet; a training magnet."

The deal settles a lawsuit brought by ECMC against the state, preserving $65 million in state aid to close Kaleida's Millard Fillmore Hospital on Gates Circle and merge its operations into Buffalo General Hospital.

But in the bigger picture, the agreement -- which now has the state's blessing -- paves the way for long-sought changes in hospital care in the region.

These include construction of the downtown center for heart and vascular care and formation of a hospital network aligned with UB that is in a better position to enhance medical programs, start new ones, replace aging facilities, recruit physicians and improve the training of new doctors.

The deal also means that planning for the Global Vascular Institute will begin immediately, with an eye toward opening its doors in early 2011. Speaker after speaker said Monday the center, designed to research causes of heart and vascular disease as well as treat it, will put the city on par with similar facilities in New York City, Boston, Cleveland, Rochester and Pittsburgh.

Gioia, who became emotional in describing all the hurdles that had to be overcome in reaching the agreement, said implementing the plans will take "enormous amounts of money." But he noted the state already has "primed the pump" with the promise of $65 million to launch the effort.

"It will require investment for years and years to come," he said, adding that philanthropists such as the Jacobs family of Buffalo already have stepped up with substantial donations.

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