The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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March 15, 2014

Windber hoping for cooperation

WINDBER — Windber Medical Center’s interim CEO Tom Kurtz said he, like the rest of the community, could only speculate on the recurring whispers that Conemaugh was seeking a partner from outside the region. And he said he only knows as much about the southern-based Duke LifePoint Healthcare as he could find on the Internet.

Kurtz has only been sitting atop the area’s last remaining nonprofit medical care provider since the beginning of March, but he said he’s very much aware of the impact Friday’s announcement could have on the local health care landscape.

“I think I’d be naive to say ... this mega, for-profit health system (that is) going to spend $500 million in the area isn’t a concern of ours,” he said.

He said Windber Medical has enjoyed a competitive yet cooperative relationship with Conemaugh Health System for the past few decades, which has included regular referrals to Conemaugh’s tertiary services.

“We’re hoping this new owner will see the value of a relationship like that,” he said, acknowledging that Duke LifePoint is a company that has coffers full enough to be entirely self-serving – even to compete with Pittsburgh giant UPMC.

But he said the new partnership isn’t intimidating.

“I think the services the medical staff at Windber Medical Center and the 450 employees will match anything coming up from North Carolina on quality, safety and patient satisfaction,” he said. “They can outspend us, but they can’t outperform us. Our quality speaks for itself.”

Also echoing many employees, patients and county taxpayers, Kurtz said there are going to be many questions over the negotiation and transitional period. For one, Kurtz said the geography will not be conducive to Duke LifePoint’s mission statement – providing Duke University Health System care, named one of the top 10 providers in the country by U.S. News and World Report, to Johnstown patients. He said he wonders how much transferral of clinical services patients can expect since Durham, N.C., is not a day trip.

He also said that while a mega health care network wresting ownership from the community and local leaders would normally be a cause for concern, it doesn’t have to be here.

“I don’t think the control issue is important. I just hope that they’re committed to it and that commitment remains here,” he said.

There’s much more to be unraveled in the coming months, he said. But for Kurtz, at least one thing is clear  – Windber Medical Center will be, in some ways, standing alone. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I think it’s now more important than ever to support a community nonprofit choice in this area,” he said. “We’re committed to providing the services regardless of the ability to pay or their profitability to the community.

“Now’s the time we’re going to be highlighted in that area. We are the only not-for-profit choice here.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.

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