PORTLAND, Maine — MaineHealth, the largest health care system in the state, is moving forward with a proposal to consolidate all member hospitals under a single authority, a move that has the potential to affect hundreds of thousands of Mainers.
Nine of MaineHealth’s 10 hospital groups have voted to keep exploring consolidation and to bring the proposal to their communities for discussion, MaineHealth officials announced Thursday. The 10th hospital member is based in New Hampshire and won’t vote until July because of the regulatory process in that state.
The proposal will be the focus of community forums throughout the area.
If the plan is formally approved by local hospital boards this fall, those boards will relinquish budget oversight and governing authority to MaineHealth in Portland in 2018. In return, under the current proposal, each hospital group would get at least one representative on the MaineHealth board, but that’s guaranteed only for the first five years.
“We don’t want this to feel like the UN, where everyone’s sitting behind a sign that says where they’re from. We want this to feel like a board where everybody is rowing in the same direction,” Bill Burke, a member of the Maine Medical Center board, said. “The sooner we can do that, the better.”
Local boards would keep some authority, including the ability to fundraise, discipline doctors and oversee patient care. They would also maintain “a defined role” in budgeting, planning and hiring key executives.
MaineHealth members include Western Maine Health, which owns Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, and the Franklin Community Health Network, which owns Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington. MaineHealth’s flagship is Maine Medical Center in Portland.
The proposal does not affect affiliate hospitals that are not full members, such as the St. Mary’s Health System in Lewiston.
MaineHealth announced in December it wanted to combine its members into a single, $2 billion organization overseen by one board. Right now, hospitals are largely run by their own boards and ultimately are responsible for how and where they spend their money.
The current system “inhibits the ability for MaineHealth to deploy assets to other community hospitals like ours, even if they want to,” Timothy Churchill, president of Western Maine Health and interim CEO of Franklin Community Health Network, said.
Last year, about half of MaineHealth’s hospitals, including Franklin Memorial, lost money. The other half, including Stephens Memorial, made money.
MaineHealth officials say members need to unite under one authority because it would create a single, well-funded system that could move everyone in the same direction and better respond to rapid changes in health care.
“It’s all about maintaining access to care for the patients in all of our communities,” MaineHealth CEO Bill Caron said. “Our rural communities are struggling. They’re struggling more and more every day.”
When the idea of consolidation was publicly announced in December, it fueled concerns about loss of local control, especially among people at Franklin Community Health Network, which joined MaineHealth just two years ago and had considered local control essential at the time.
“I think it probably raises everybody’s eyebrows a little bit. It wouldn’t be human nature if it didn’t,” Clinton Boothby, chairman of the Franklin Community Health Network’s board of directors, told the Sun Journal in December. “It raises a concern for people. The question for us, though, has to be: Is it a concern and you stop there or is it an opportunity?”
Boothby said this week that most of his board members see the proposal as an opportunity.
“When we joined the network, we made the decision that there was some strength in numbers and throwing in, if you will, with a larger system would allow us to continue providing health care to our community in ways that we might not otherwise be able to do,” he said. “This is another step in that direction.”
Local boards have spent months discussing the proposal and meeting with MaineHealth officials. They began voting last month about whether to move forward or stop the conversation.
Franklin Community Health Network’s board voted last month to move forward. Only one person was opposed.
Western Maine Health’s board voted Wednesday night to move forward. It was unanimous.
“By putting the strong financial backing of MaineHealth behind us, with resources behind our organization in a formal way, it greatly strengthens our ability to navigate these difficult waters,” Patricia Weigel, chairwoman of the board, said.
Hospitals will now host community forums to get public input about the proposal. MaineHealth officials said the plan could change based on that feedback.
Stephens Memorial is scheduled to host a forum from 5 to 6:30 p.m. on June 28.
Franklin Memorial is scheduled to host a forum from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. on July 11.