Caution and care required for historic merger

Nov 04, 2010

The decision by the Federal Trade Commission allowing Pen Bay Healthcare to become part of Portland-based MaineHealth marks the last hurdle before locally historic change is effected by the end of this year.

Pen Bay Healthcare is, by itself, not that old, having incorporated not even 30 years ago as Northeast Health. Still, Pen Bay Healthcare is a distinctly local organization, representing the evolution of the medical business and health care in our region of Penobscot Bay.

Now, our local health care organization will become a member of a much larger entity, MaineHealth, whose providers and affiliated organizations are present in 11 of Maine's 16 counties. Its hospitals are in Norway, Belfast, Damariscotta, Portland (Maine Medical Center), Saco, Biddeford, and now Rockport. Its arm will reach into all aspects of our health care, from pediatrics to the home health services of Kno-Wal-Lin to Quarry Hill and the Knox Center for Long Term Care.

This is big business growing bigger, and consumers are not blind to the fact that medical care organizations in Maine are competing with each other more fiercely in order to survive. New facilities are under construction from Brewer to Waterville and points south.

As consumers, we have high expectations that MaineHealth will offer practical solutions to our health care needs; nothing extravagant, just careful and thoughtful. Wouldn't it be helpful for the scores of cancer patients now traveling to Bath or Scarborough for radiation treatments to receive care closer to home, say Miles Memorial Hospital, Penobscot Bay Medical Center, or Waldo County General Hospital?

We are also concerned that the business of health care will supersede the needs of patients in more rural regions than Portland. MaineHealth may think traveling to Portland is not that big a deal for some services.

With the new structure, Pen Bay Healthcare will have one seat on a 16-seat board of trustees. Control over budgets will fall to administrators, probably in Portland, and with the conditions placed on the merger that savings result from the deal, no doubt fiscal housekeeping is in order. And we appreciate the stipulation that $1 million in administrative savings must be accomplished in the first three years.

But those are easy numbers to throw around; how they are actualized makes us nervous. Those folks in the elderly care facilities are our parents, those needing treatments are our family. That is the beauty of local ownership, and it is a known phenomenon that communities care for themselves. This is the aspect of Pen Bay Healthcare that we strongly hope never diminishes.

And if things don't work out within the first two years, then yes, Pen Bay Healthcare should certainly drop out of the merger. What will speak loudest is whether quality care can be provided to patients, bolstered now by the resources of MaineHealth and Maine Medical Center.

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