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Originally published October 7, 2010 at 8:06 PM | Page modified October 7, 2010 at 8:59 PM

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Group Health, Everett Clinic form bond

Group Health Cooperative and The Everett Clinic are teaming up with a goal of lowering health-care costs and providing better care to patients. Leaders of both systems say it's not a merger, and most patients will likely notice little change, for now.

Seattle Times health reporter

Information

The Everett Clinic's Q&A for patients: www.everettclinic.com/About_Us/Group_Health_Affiliation.ashx?p=4009

Group Health Cooperative and The Everett Clinic have announced what both say is a mutually beneficial partnership to contain costs and improve care — not a takeover of the clinic by the much larger cooperative.

To the outside world, it might seem odd that Group Health — a health maintenance organization that for most of its existence has avoided the fee-for-service world and charged patients per month, not per procedure — is joining hands with a prominent fee-for-service provider.

But both say in light of skyrocketing health-care costs, as well as the likelihood the new federal health overhaul will force belt-tightening, they need to learn from one another.

Group Health insures and provides care for more than 616,000 members. The Everett Clinic, with more than 300 doctors, provides care for about 275,000 patients.

For most patients, there won't be immediate changes, though ultimately patients in one system may be able to see providers in the other.

The first step in that direction will be for Everett Clinic patients in a Medicare Advantage plan that is shutting down. If they sign up for Group Health's Medicare Advantage plan, they'll be able to continue seeing their doctors at The Everett Clinic.

The two entities have long held similar views about how to make the delivery of health care work better.

"I think it really comes down to common cultures," said The Everett Clinic's CEO, Rick Cooper, who called the action a "strategic partnership." He noted that over the last several years, both systems have worked toward similar goals — for example, reducing emergency-room use and hospitalization by better management of patients with chronic illnesses, and emphasizing a "medical home" model of care.

Last spring, the clinic's board set a goal of a 25 percent reduction in the cost of care over the next five years, said Cooper, who has long argued the fee-for-service system is wasteful.

"We are really going to have to perform in a significantly different way to reduce costs of care and at the same time improve care," he said. Both the clinic and Group Health will study each other's "best practices" to do that: "We're going to learn from one another," Cooper said.

Both systems say they will remain independent; no workers will lose their jobs and no departments will be combined.

"No money is changing hands," said Dr. Michael Soman, president and chief medical executive of Group Health Physicians, the doctors who contract with the cooperative. "It's not a stealth merger."

What the affiliation is about, he said, is changing the health-care delivery system, which is eating up a huge hunk of the country's gross national product while becoming increasingly unaffordable for many Americans.

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

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