Carson-Tahoe Hospital may continue affiliation talks with Washoe Health Systems and Barton Memorial Hospital, but it is stepping back for now as its potential competitors move forward.
Washoe Health System announced its intent to buy 50 percent of the Barton-owned Carson Valley Medical Center in Gardnerville.
Washoe and Barton administrators have been discussing affiliation for four years, but Carson-Tahoe joined the discussion about six months ago.
Carson-Tahoe Chief Operating Officer Ed Epperson said members of the hospital's affiliation committee wanted to back up and make sure affiliation goals have been identified.
"There's a sense we've been there more to learn and explore options, whereas our potential partners have had four years to work this out," Epperson said. "We're the new guys in the conversation, and we need a bit of a time-out. We need to know what it is we want to have in an affiliation."
While administrators from the two privately owned hospitals insist their concern is patient care in the Carson Valley, Epperson said the Washoe-Barton affiliation creates competitive pressure on Carson's taxpayer owned hospital.
"I anticipate their goal to be more referrals to Washoe or Barton at the expense of Carson-Tahoe," Epperson said. "Barton is a competitor of ours and they didn't move into the Carson Valley with our good in mind. If their goal is to increase business at Barton or Washoe, it's at our expense."
Epperson said 25 to 30 percent of Carson-Tahoe's business filters into the hospital from outside Carson City, mostly from Douglas County.
"We are enjoying the benefits of their patronage," Epperson said. "We have a system that is doing well and allows us to bring more services to this community. Twenty-five to 30 percent of the market is key.
"Ultimately we have to collaborate or compete. I'd rather collaborate, no question. We've always wanted to work with Barton; the details are the difficult part. How do you sit down with your competitor and learn to cooperate? It's not an automatic thing. We're not saying we don't want to do it. We need to have a clear idea to see how we fit in the picture."
Part of Carson-Tahoe's decision to back away from affiliation talks was the resignation of Washoe's president and chief executive officer, Robert Burn.
Burn's resignation is effective in January, and Carson-Tahoe Trustee Paul Saucedo, who served on the affiliation committee, said he would rather continue further affiliation talks with the new administrator.
Burn said the partnership between Barton and Washoe will create an increase in services to the Carson Valley, although those services have yet to be defined.
"Our motivation is to serve the community well," Burn said. "We think it's a good idea to do it together. Carson-Tahoe is still an invited party. Combining the resources of the three organizations makes more sense than going it alone."
Barton CEO Bill Gordon said Barton sought the affiliation with Washoe Health four years ago after realizing the larger health provider offered opportunities the South Lake Tahoe-based hospital couldn't provide.
"We needed a partner, and at the time Carson-Tahoe wasn't interested," Gordon said. "Ideally, the best of both worlds would be for Carson-Tahoe, Washoe and Barton to all be involved down there. It just made sense that they be involved in this. We haven't been able to pull it off."
Gordon said having all three hospitals working together would eliminate duplication of services. He added that he didn't think the point of the agreement with Washoe was to harm Carson-Tahoe.
"Our point is to see what health services can be provided to help," Gordon said. "Not harm anyone, but to help the community."
"It's important that people in the Carson Valley understand the reason for doing this is to provide them with low cost health care," Gordon said. "Having two parties involved insures quality health care. For the people who live there, it's a wonderful thing."
A December deadline is looming for continued affiliation talks among the three hospitals. Saucedo and Trustee Pete Livermore said Carson-Tahoe's affiliation committee wanted to assemble the community affiliation task force to make sure the community's idea of affiliation is in sync with the hospital's.
"We need to make sure we meet the needs of the community," Saucedo said. "I want to get something positive done that will benefit our community and the community down in the Carson Valley. In my heart, I think we're going to accomplish something. I don't know if it will happen in six months or three months, but I don't want to scratch anything or anybody off the list."