HOT SPRINGS — Officials from St. Vincent Health System in Little Rock announced the transfer of ownership of Mercy Hot Springs hospital and physician clinic April 1, putting to rest the long-running discussion about the future of one of the oldest Catholic hospitals in the state.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor was not able to attend a press conference and prayer service April 1. Msgr. Francis I. Malone read a prepared statement from the bishop, who was traveling out of the country.
“I am grateful to God that the Catholic health care apostolate will be able to continue in Hot Springs, and I am grateful to all from Mercy, Catholic Health Initiatives and the local community who have had a positive role in making this happen,” the statement read. “This has been a difficult road, as we know all too well, but it will be worth it.”
Bishop Taylor said he is hopeful the hospital and its employees can begin healing after the proposed sale was announced in 2012 to a for-profit company.
“The difficult journey of these last two years has been an eye-opening experience for me, as it has been for many of you,” according to the bishop’s statement. “Our first step going forward should be the healing of this institution and those who work here — leading to insight into the demands of Jesus’ healing ministry in today’s changing world.”
Bishop Taylor has focused over the past year on strengthening Catholic health care in the diocese. His latest step is the “inner renewal of the Catholic health care apostolate in Arkansas.”
He had strong words for the Catholic hospitals in the diocese that “seem to function more as ‘social service enterprises’ than as a genuine Catholic apostolate.”
“Is there a way for us to return to the days when Catholic hospitals functioned as an unmistakable, clearly defined apostolate of the Church?”
The bishop’s answer is the establishment of the Healthcare Evangelization Commission, led by diocesan ethicist Father Jason Tyler.
St. Vincent Health System president and CEO Peter Banko said he believes the sale to St. Vincent Health System’s owner, Catholic Health Initiatives, will help Catholic health care stay “sustainable and strong.”
“The founding Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and Sisters of Mercy would be proud to see their 126-year ministries strengthened today through the formation of a larger, regional health care system serving southwest and central Arkansas.”
“Our agreement with CHI provides assurance that Catholic health care has a strong, sustainable future in Hot Springs,” added Lynn Britton, St. Louis-based Mercy Health System president and CEO. “The affiliation with SVHS provides the opportunity to strengthen health services locally as well as across the entire region and enables our co-workers and physicians to continue to do what they love — provide exceptional care and service to their community in a faith-based environment.”
Financial terms of the deal were not released. St. Vincent Health System takes over operation of the hospital, physician’s clinic and all outlying clinics that were a part of Mercy Hot Springs, with the exception of Cooper Anthony Mercy Child Advocacy Center, which Mercy will continue to sponsor.
No medical staff privileges of current physicians at Mercy Hot Springs are expected to be affected. The roughly 2,000 physicians and staff employed by Mercy Hot Springs as of April 1 will continue their employment with the hospital.
In a conference call with the media before the press conference, Banko said the vision for the future is to develop St. Vincent Hot Springs into a regional medical magnet, beginning with area physicians. He said the hospital, currently No. 1 in the area’s market share and patient preference, will be aggressively pursuing physicians not currently using the hospital.
“This hospital is a gem,” Banko said. “It really gives us a strong presence and a hub in southwest Arkansas.”
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor said at the time, he was “encouraged” by the proposed sale as “a way for our Catholic health care apostolate to continue Jesus’ healing ministry in Hot Springs and the surrounding areas.”
Talks between the two organizations began last year and quickly progressed to signing a non-binding letter of intent Oct. 11 to sell the Hot Springs operation to Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, of which St. Vincent Health System is an affiliate.
The negotiations also came on the heels of a bid for the Hot Springs hospital by for-profit Capella Healthcare, based in Tennessee, but it failed to garner diocesan and Federal Trade Commission support. Vatican approval, which is required in Church property transactions worth more than $5 million, also did not happen. As a result, that deal was called off June 27.
Bishop Taylor was outspoken in his objections to the Capella deal for its lack of guarantees against offering procedures that are contrary to the Church’s moral teaching as well as a suspect commitment to providing continuing medical services to the poor. Following that proposal’s demise, he pledged his support to help Mercy Hot Springs explore options to merge with a Catholic entity.
On Tuesday, Banko reiterated St. Vincent Health System’s commitment to maintaining a strong Catholic-centered hospital in Hot Springs, from its commitment to providing health care to the poor, to maintaining a presence of the Sisters of Mercy to provide pastoral care.
“St. Vincent is among the largest hospitals in terms of free care to the poor and underserved, if not the largest,” Banko said. “It’s core to our mission and values and that’s why we have committed to continue providing free services at least at the level they were before and probably more.”
The Hot Springs hospital will get a new name — again — and interim CEO. St. Joseph Mercy Medical Center was renamed Mercy Hot Springs in April 2012. Effective April 1 it is known as St. Vincent Hot Springs.
Thomas Fitz, interim president, has previously worked with CHI in Kansas and Morrilton. He also served for nearly a decade as CEO for Catholic Health East’s St. Mary’s Hospital and Health Care System in Georgia.
Mercy Hot Springs was founded in 1888 and was been part of Mercy Health, the sixth largest Catholic health care system in the country. In addition to the 282-bed Hot Springs hospital, featuring the only Level II trauma center in Southwest Arkansas, the entity also includes an 80-physician clinic organization.
St. Vincent Health System, also founded in 1888, operates the 615-bed St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock, the 69-bed St. Vincent North in Sherwood, the 25-bed St. Vincent Morrilton and St. Vincent West, an outpatient campus in west Little Rock.
For more information about St. Vincent Hot Springs, see www.chistvincent.com/Hospitals/st-vincent-hot-springs.
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