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Partnerships can be equally beneficial for all parties

Improved access to health care, lower costs noted as goals of health systems’ partnerships

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October 7, 2022

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Over the past couple of years, the changing face of healthcare has had many smaller health systems looking at partnerships or even mergers with larger entities – with a goal of improving access and keeping patient costs down.

These moves can be observed throughout Northeast Wisconsin with multiple announcements coming in the last two years, including:
The January 2021 announcement from Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Inc. that Froedtert & Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) would acquire a majority membership interest in Holy Family Memorial (HFM) in Manitowoc, which became official a couple of months later in March 2021.In June 2022, Bellin Health in Green Bay and Gundersen Health System in La Crosse announced their intent to merge.And the most recent announcement, Sept. 20, coming from ThedaCare that they will be partnering with Milwaukee-based Froedtert & MCW.
Each announcement comes with an intention of enhancing access to advanced-level care, more resources and a broader network of services.

Academic medicine
The moves go even further as they take the future of healthcare into account as well.

In the only one-on-one interview Cathy Jacobson, president/CEO of Froedtert Health, gave following the ThedaCare and Froedtert & MCW partnership announcement, she told The Business News that Northeast Wisconsin residents will benefit in both the Lakeshore and Fox Valley markets by having access to the “academic medicine” Froedtert & MCW provides.

Jacobson said “academic medicine” refers to medical organizations where a medical school that teaches students who want to become doctors also provide healthcare to patients.

She said usually, there is also a strong research component, and that’s the case with Froedtert & MCW.

MCW is constructing its new 150,000-square-foot MCW Cancer Research Building, which has been dubbed the only cancer-dedicated research facility in eastern Wisconsin, which will centralize MCW’s cancer research programs.

Those programs include nearly 700 researchers in 135 labs.

Construction is expected to be completed by late 2024 at a cost of about $100 million, which includes a $10 million commitment from the State Building Commission.

“The MCW Cancer Research Building will serve as a hub for cancer innovation and bring together the brightest minds to forge innovations that will address the cancer burden impacting patients and families in eastern Wisconsin and beyond,” John Raymond Sr., MCW president and CEO, said.

Jacobson said over the past six years, Froedtert Health “felt that we had reached the place in our own (Milwaukee) market that we could get a lot more deliberate” in reaching out to other parts of the state.

“It’s our vision to bring the best of academic medicine to the communities we serve, and we lead with that,” she said.

Jacobson said the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, which founded Holy Family Hospital in 1899, approached Froedtert & MCW about an affiliation, noting it was a decision that was carefully thought through.

“The folks we have in Manitowoc, they know the community, they know it best,” she said, noting Froedtert Holy Family Memorial Hospital maintains its Catholic identity under the sole sponsorship of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Inc. “We were sensitive to that, and we understand the market we’re going into.”

Manitowoc’s Froedtert Holy Family Memorial Hospital is a Level III Trauma Center. Submitted Photo

Jacobson said the Froedtert Holy Family network includes the in-patient and outpatient hospital medical center, specialty care, walk-in care and more than 10 clinics, and employs 830 health care professionals.

Froedtert Holy Family Memorial Hospital is a Level III Trauma Center.

“Integrating the Holy Family operations into Froedtert Health is what has been accomplished successfully,” Jacobson said.

She said patients should expect to see a more pronounced Froedtert presence along the Lakeshore soon.

“Now, we’re focusing on the service we can offer in Manitowoc,” Jacobson said.

ThedaCare and Froedtert & MCW
Jacobson said it’s been less than a year since ThedaCare and Froedtert & MCW began partnership talks.

“There are many, many commonalities in principle (on) how we approach things,” she said.

Jacobson said the Froedtert & MCW health network operates eastern Wisconsin’s only academic medical center and adult Level I Trauma Center – which includes 11 hospital locations, more than 2,000 physicians and more than 45 health centers and clinics.

Cathy Jacobson

ThedaCare has “a lot of capabilities in the community that they have today that they do well…,” she said. “What they don’t do today or don’t plan to do in the future,” that’s where Froedtert & MCW can come in to provide advanced level care.

The coordinated care is expected to begin in 2023.

Imran A. Andrabi, M.D., ThedaCare president & CEO, said the health system delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties in Northeast and Northcentral Wisconsin, employing approximately 7,000 health care professionals, which makes it the largest employer in Northeast Wisconsin.

He said it has 180 “points of care,” including eight hospitals, and was the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on patient care.

ThedaCare is designated a Level II Trauma Center.

Jacobson said Froedtert & MCW will provide progressive medical care to ThedaCare patients for unique specialty services such as heart and lung transplants and advanced heart failure, with ThedaCare providing care locally before and after.

“Our patients and community members living in Northeast and Central Wisconsin can expect better health outcomes through expanded, convenient access to coordinated, specialty care close to home,” Andrabi said.

He said the seamless transfer of care between the organizations can help patients and families in the region.

“Collaborative care will already be in place, before a person’s transplant, and through follow-up and ongoing care, close to home, with identified providers from organizations continuing to support the patient’s health and well-being,” he said.

Jacobson said this partnership will also further ThedaCare’s development of a graduate medical education.

“The physician leadership part of this governance is very important,” she said.

Jacobson said physicians from both health systems are “sitting side by side” as they work out details of the partnership.
She said the health systems anticipate expanding their partnership, “but we want to make sure we are good at the ones we have identified up front.”

Jacobson said Northeast Wisconsin can anticipate a growing presence of Froedtert & MCW in Northeast Wisconsin, noting it is public knowledge they own land in Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties.

Bellin and Gundersen
Earlier this year, Bellin Health and Gundersen Health System announced they were in discussions on a planned merger.
Chris Woleske, Bellin Health president & CEO, said the merger is on track to be completed before the end of 2022.

“Required regulatory steps have been cleared, and now we’re working on our integration plan,” she said in an interview with The Business News Sept. 29.

Bellin Hospital, located on Webster Avenue in Green Bay, is a Level III Trauma Center. Submitted Photo

Woleske said there is no name change planned for either health system – both of which have been in their respective markets for more than 100 years.

“We love the fact both Bellin and Gundersen have such strong brand and name recognition in each region…,” she said.

Woleske said though both entities will keep their names, brand experts will be hired to discuss the branding of the merged health system.

Established in 1908, Bellin Health serves Northeast Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with more than 5,000 employees and includes Bellin Hospital, Bellin Psychiatric Center, 29 Bellin Health primary and specialty care physician clinics and the Bellin Health FastCare retail clinics.

Bellin also operates Bellin Health Oconto Hospital, Bellin Fitness, Bellin Health Home Care Equipment and Bellin College.
It is a Level III Trauma Center.

Gundersen Health System is a physician-led healthcare network with more than 9,000 employees, including nearly 1,000 clinicians, serving 22 counties in western Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, and northeast Iowa.

It has seven hospitals and more than 60 clinic locations.

It is a Level II Trauma Center.

With the merger, Woleske said Bellin and Gundersen are committing “to reduce the total cost of care.”

“We want to make healthcare more affordable,” she said.

Woleske said rising costs in the marketplace and supply chain issues are “definitely a big focus for us.”

The cost of technology has also been identified as a reason behind the merger.

“Technology is super expensive, and every day there is something new,” Woleske said. “Every day there is a new app. Every day there is a new, shiny piece of technology… We can perhaps afford the technology together we couldn’t afford individually.”

She said both health systems also agree the planned merger will be a win for the rural communities that both health systems serve.

Woleske said the merger will feature what Bellin and Gundersen are calling “a balanced leadership structure,” which maintains the systems’ current headquarters in both Green Bay and La Crosse, respectively.

She said there will be two top positions – Scott Rathgaber, CEO of Gundersen, will serve as the new health system CEO, while the chairperson of the newly created board will be John Dykema, current chairperson of the Bellin Health Board of Directors.

Woleske said she will serve as the health system executive vice president and regional president of the northern counties.
“We are going to try and operate in both markets, so we will alternate our leadership meetings and our board meetings (across regions),” she said. “Some of the system executives will live in Green Bay and some will live in La Crosse.”

Woleske said there will be no cuts to staff. 

“In fact, we have too many open positions and not enough people to fill them…,” she said. “We are growing, so we continue to add people to our team.”

Woleske said Bellin is currently amid a major construction project – a five-story ambulatory surgery center off Highway 41, Waube Lane and Allied Street in Ashwaubenon.

“The steel is up and standing, and it is big,” she said. “They’re making great progress and it’s going well… The opening will probably be in late 2023.”

Woleske said Bellin Health also announced plans to build a new pediatric and adolescent specialty care clinic on land near the corner of Highway 172 and Ashland Avenue in Ashwaubenon.

Chris Woleske

She said it will be home to the newly announced Bellin Health Adolescent Team, which will address the multifaceted healthcare needs of adolescents and teens.

Woleske said the clinic will operate through the new partnership announced in 2021 between Bellin, Children’s Wisconsin and ThedaCare.
She said the building is in the design phase and groundbreaking is not yet set.

According to the May 2022 announcement, the clinic is anticipated to open in the first quarter of 2024.

“People think of us sometimes as a small organization, but we’ve grown significantly over the last couple of decades,” Woleske said, noting Bellin’s geographic reach recently expanded to bring cardiology services to Marquette, Michigan. “People (at Bellin Health) are energized and excited.”

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