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Geisinger, Highmark embark on affiliation talks

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Geisinger Health System and Highmark Inc. on Wednesday announced plans to collaborate on a health care initiative in four north-central Pennsylvania counties.

The two organizations have signed a letter of intent to create a "clinical joint venture," which they said will be designed to expand "community-based care" through greater patient choice for consumers and businesses.

The initial focus will be on Lycoming, Clinton, Tioga and Sullivan counties.

Is it a response to PinnacleHealth's recent move to affiliate with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center? Or in response to UPMC's move into the region last year through an affiliation with Williamsport-based Susquehanna Health?

Officials wouldn't say yes, but they didn't say no, either.

"Actually, this is our neck of the woods," Lynn Miller, Geisinger's executive vice president for clinical operations, said when asked about competing with UPMC in north-central Pennsylvania.

"We have a strong presence in the four counties. This is our home," Miller added. "This is a natural expansion of care in a market that has been important to us for years."

The two organizations said they will explore creating a clinical network that is patient-focused, physician-oriented and community-based, with comprehensive access for Highmark and Geisinger Health Plan members, including those in Medicare Advantage plans.

Concrete details, including cost, timing and plans for a new "comprehensive health campus" in the Montoursville area, have yet to be determined, officials said Wednesday, and will be explored.

"We are currently assessing community needs and levels of appropriate investment to meet those needs," Miller said.

"The goal of this new facility will be to deliver important medical services and clinical capabilities in the local community that are complementary to the advanced tertiary services available at Geisinger Medical Center," she said.

And the affiliation could potentially expand to other areas, including the midstate — home of Geisinger Holy Spirit in Cumberland County — if the initial concept proves successful, said Highmark Health Plan president Deborah Rice-Johnson.

But neither Miller nor Rice-Johnson indicated any specific plan or timetable for considering such an expansion.

What both did talk about was the mutual hope that this affiliation will offer high-quality, affordable care at community sites, by drawing on the two companies' respective expertise in care delivery and care management.

Danville-based Geisinger serves more than 3 million residents throughout counties in Central, southcentral and northeast Pennsylvania. The system has approximately 30,000 employees, including nearly 1,600 physicians,  as well as 12 hospital campuses, two research centers, and a 551,000-member health plan.

Pittsburgh-based Highmark and affiliates operate health insurance plans that serve 5 million people in Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Virginia.

Miller said the affiliation will be designed to look at ways in which people can be treated in their communities, with an emphasis on prevention and care that heads off hospital visits as much as possible.

"I know that sounds crazy for a hospital to say, but it really is part of the goal."

The move comes as the health care marketplace in Pennsylvania is shifting rapidly.

In March, PinnacleHealth announced not just that it had signed a letter of intent to join with UPMC, but that it had entered into an agreement with Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc. to buy four midstate hospitals, expanding the Harrisburg-based health system's reach across the commonwealth.

"We are taking well-planned and appropriate action such as this letter of intent with Geisinger to help ensure that Highmark members and patients in the community continue to have access to high-quality, affordable care," Highmark's Rice-Johnson said Wednesday. "We are working with independent physician groups and community-based hospitals to ensure that consumers will maintain access to care in light of large provider system mergers."

Officials acknowledged that Geisinger is in UPMC's service provider network, at locations including Geisinger Holy Spirit and at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital, in Mifflin County, adding that the new affiliation will not affect continuation of those relationships, nor preclude others in the future.

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Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis

Roger DuPuis covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at rogerd@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @rogerdupuis2.

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