June 12, 2014

JPS, UNTHSC agree to create healthcare group

The agreement sets up joint efforts to deliver medical treatment, educate healthcare workers and research.

The city’s largest public health care provider and city’s only medical school — JPS Health Network and the University of North Texas Health Science Center — on Thursday announced a partnership aimed at improving health care and expanding both educational and research opportunities.

The UNT System Board of Regents and the Tarrant County Hospital District both approved creation of a nonprofit to oversee a new physicians medical group for doctors treating patients through both institutions. The issue was approved in separate meetings with an 8-2 vote by the hospital district board and 7-0 by the UNT regents.

The two no votes were cast by hospital district board members Steve McCollum and Dorothy Debose. The hospital district board also said the negotiated contract must come back to the board for final approval.

Many details remain to be ironed out, but leaders of the two entities expect the new partnership to improve the quality of care. By further linking a public hospital to a major university, the opportunity for medical-related research can get a boost as doctors, patients and researchers come together.

“We believe that the stronger the relationship between these two local organizations, the better overall healthcare delivery will be in Tarrant County for all patients,” said JPS President and Chief Executive Officer Robert Earley.

UNT Health Science Center President Michael Williams said the new partnership will help build a culture of patients first, while also creating more opportunities for cooperation.

“It will take us places we never dreamed possible,” Williams said of the larger vision to build quality patient care while creating a learning environment between UNTHSC physicians and a public teaching hospital.

The discussions first began about 14 months ago and finally led to the vote Thursday. Williams said forming a closer working relationship would help with many of today’s healthcare challenges.

“Tarrant County and area hospitals would benefit from access to a concentration of well-trained healthcare professionals who can address the current chronic physician shortage,” Williams said.

The newly created medical group doesn’t have an official name or director yet.

In coming months, patients treated by doctors from UNT Health or JPS Health Network will start receiving care under the newly formed medical group. Williams and Earley said they want patients to notice a new name coupled with more communication with physicians or caregivers. Patients should also get more access to information about their health.

As details of the new agreement emerged, community and city leaders praised the partnership.

“It's going to be a whole lot more productive for our patients,” said Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, a member of the UNT Board of Regents. “It’s better use of taxpayers’ dollars. I think we’re now going to be able to hold them more accountable to qualitative and quantitative standard.”

Until now, each physician group negotiated separate contracts, making it difficult to create a uniform standard of care. If a physician missed appointments, showed up late or treated patients elsewhere, Whitley said there was little recourse.

“We’re going to be watching and measuring,” Whitley said. “… This should lead to more consistent treatment.”

Outlining a vision

JPS has contracts with 18 different physician groups, some of which are also tied to UNTHSC.

Officials were quick to say this isn’t a merger, but a joint governance through a 501(a) designation. It will be a physician-led group that operates under a governing board created by UNTHSC and JPS.

Physicians will get their paychecks from one entity instead of UNTHSC or JPS. All the providers will work within the same medical group providing service to the hospital and clinics.

The shift will take place gradually as contracts come up for renegotiation with JPS. The first will come up in September.

Asked if any pushback is expected during this process, Williams responded: “There is always pushback.”

But he and Earley said they hope people understand the project aims to change patient care for the better.

“Patients today want input,” Williams said. “They want access to their own information.”

The UNT Health Science Center, in Fort Worth’s Cultural District, is home to several community-based programs in which researchers are exploring treatment options for Alzheimer's disease and searching for solutions to Tarrant County's high infant mortality.

The new entity marries UNTHSC’s research work with efforts in the JPS Network, which has a teaching hospital with nine residency programs. Officials said research resources will be shared.

Supporters said the new relationship will create an opportunity to dig into data about better treatments while also exploring how to get people better access to care.

A history of working together

The agreement is not the first time the two institutions have joined forces.

UNTHSC has provided professional medical staffing and services to the JPS Health Network at the hospital and clinics. Professional medical services have included community medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedics, psychiatry, rheumatology, cardiology, and gastroenterology.

UNTHSC and JPS have also maintained Graduate Medical Education and Undergraduate Medical Education programs at the JPS hospital and clinics.

JPS has supported the health science center’s push for a M.D. program, and pledged $2.5 million to help with those plans in 2010. At the time, UNTHSC officials were trying to raise $25 million before seeking the 2011 Legislature’s approval for an M.D. program.

While plans for the M.D. program haven’t come to fruition, UNTHSC said it still is a goal to create a second medical degree program. It is not clear whether the new partnership will bring them closer to that goal.

The previous efforts to get an M.D. program became embroiled in the firing of former UNTHSC president Dr. Scott Ransom in December 2012. The controversy appeared to have ended with the hiring of Dr. Williams as president in 2013. Plans for the M.D. program are still on the table.

The proposed M.D. school has been controversial because supporters of the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is operated by the health science center, worry that the osteopathic program would be diminished.

James W. Czewski, chair of the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association, Task Force for the Preservation of the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, said in a statement that the osteopathic community had been kept in the dark about the new partnership.

“Over the last six years, a statewide Task Force of osteopathic physicians, many of whom are TCOM alumni, have been working to preserve and strengthen ‘Fort Worth’s’ nationally-recognized medical school. As Texas grapples with the state’s physician shortage, we are continuing to put our energy and resources into expanding residency programs so that new graduates of TCOM, and other Texas medical schools, are not forced to leave the state to complete their medical training,” Czewski said in the statement.

But he said osteopaths hope the announcement will prove to be good news for all physicians.

Both Williams and Earley said the parternship should not cause problems for anyone associated with TCOM.

“I can't understand why anybody who has any affiliation with TCOM would have a problem with this union,” Williams said. “This union has been needed for so many years.”

UNT Chancellor Lee Jackson said the partnership is significant.

“This is the most profound and important partnership the UNT Health Science Center has ever had, and a recognition that we are ready to be a critical partner to a major hospital like JPS,” he said.

Any turf battles should be avoided by having both entities appoint board members to the new nonprofit, Whitley said.

“I think it is just a matter of trusting,” Whitley said. “Michael brings so much of the business acumen to this. He has done a great job so far. The way he looks at things is a business approach to medicine. A lot of physicians are real sound on the medical side but not real sound on the financial side, but Michael brings us both perspectives.”

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