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Originally published Friday, August 22, 2014 at 8:02 PM

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Group Health switches to partnership with Swedish Medical

Group Health ends a 20-year medical marriage with Virginia Mason Medical Center and takes up with Swedish Medical Center. Pre-nups specify a 10-year contract, sending Group Health inpatients and maternity patients to Swedish.


Seattle Times health reporter

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@The Black Prince Oh here we go. Its Obama's fault. The short sighted and ill informed have spoken. MORE
What a huge blow to Virginia Mason. Group Health moving from VM which has a very similar culture and operating style... MORE
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After two decades of partnership with Virginia Mason Medical Center, Group Health plans to send its Seattle-area HMO inpatients to Swedish Medical Center instead.

The planned switch was announced Friday, although details are being worked out.

Under what is expected to be a 10-year arrangement, Group Health will send maternity patients now seen at Group Health’s Capitol Hill location to Swedish beginning next spring, and other hospital patients to Swedish’s First Hill and Cherry Hill campuses beginning in February 2016.

Group Health patients will be cared for by Group Health’s physicians at Swedish, similar to the arrangement now in place at Virginia Mason. Dr. Steve Tarnoff, Group Health Physicians president and chief medical executive, said doctors at Group Health have a long history of successfully working side-by-side with doctors at major hospitals throughout the state.

Group Health’s President and CEO Scott Armstrong said the decision followed a 10-month process that considered proposals from UW Medical Center, Virginia Mason and Swedish, evaluating cost, patient experience and quality of service.

All three are “fantastic health-care delivery systems,” Armstrong said. But with heavy emphasis on affordability for patients, he said, “when you put the net of all those criteria together, the Swedish proposal was incomparable.”

Group Health also considered each system’s culture.

Overall, Armstrong said, “it’s a much better option for our patients.”

The change affects about 60,000 Group Health HMO patients and 120 Group Health doctors who now see hospital patients at Virginia Mason. Eastside Group Health members will continue inpatient services at Overlake Hospital & Medical Center.

Virginia Mason considers itself a leader in cost and quality, but doesn’t have maternity services. Armstrong said the relationship with Swedish will consolidate Group Health’s adult inpatient services for Seattle-area members in one hospital system, which the co-op’s leaders believe will be more efficient and reap economic rewards.

In addition, Swedish and Group Health use the same electronic medical-records systems, although that wasn’t a major factor, said Dawn Loeliger, Group Health’s executive vice president for strategic planning and deployment.

In a statement, Virginia Mason said it was disappointed to learn Friday of the decision to end “a successful 20-year relationship with Group Health.”

“Group Health patients are always welcome at Virginia Mason Hospital and we look forward to continuing to serve those who choose and prefer Virginia Mason for their care. Our commitment has always been and remains providing the highest quality and safest care at the lowest possible cost to all patients.”

The arrangement with Swedish, which affiliated with Providence Health & Services, a Catholic system, in 2011, may cause heartburn for some Group Health patients.

Recently, more than 500 Group Health patients submitted a petition to the co-op’s board expressing concern that Group Health’s commitment to comprehensive care “may be undermined by affiliations with religious health-care providers.” The petition asked for transparency and written policies and procedures to ensure patients’ access to legal medical services when referred to other institutions.

Tarnoff said Group Health patients’ access to services, including abortion, “death with dignity” services, and access for gays and lesbians will not be compromised by the arrangement with Swedish.

“None of the availability of those services will change,” Tarnoff said.

Although the birthing unit at the Capitol Hill location will close, Group Health providers will continue providing services at Swedish, Armstrong said.

“Our doctors, and our midwives, and our family-practice doctors and others will continue to be in the relationships they’ve had in our own Family Beginnings unit with our patients, even as we move the birthing program to the Swedish campus,” Armstrong said. “The decisions that our members with our clinicians make on these topics will not be affected by this change.”

June Altaras, chief operating officer for Swedish Seattle, said she expects the two systems to learn from one another, particularly in maternity care.

Group Health’s family-based approach and Swedish’s experience with high-risk, high-tech cases equal “the best of all worlds for our community,” Altaras said.

When Group Health and Virginia Mason announced their medical marriage in 1993, some saw it as a clash of cultures. Group Health focused on primary care and prevention, and Virginia Mason on specialty services. But the two systems actually had more in common than first seemed: Both paid doctors on salary, claimed a similar vision of the future, and both said the two systems would complement one another.

Ending that relationship wasn’t an easy decision, Armstrong said. But, he added: “Our health-care industry has to change, and there are big, hard decisions that individuals who are leaders have to make.”

Group Health cooperative, as a provider and insurer, doesn’t use the fee-for-service model common at Swedish. But Tarnoff said the “culture of Swedish is changing, as well.”

Altaras said Group Health and Swedish have found “a lot of similarities in our cultures” in the months spent exploring the new relationship.

“All health-care organizations have the same challenges — delivering that triple aim: the best quality possible, access and affordability,” she said.

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



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