HAZLETON — The ever-changing face of local health care is once again going under the knife after Wednesday’s announcement that the Greater Hazleton Health Alliance will soon be part of the Lehigh Valley Health Network.
At an official announcement Wednesday at the hospital, James Edwards, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Hazleton Health Alliance, said “Both organizations value their people and realize that’s where the care starts. That’s what has made working together a natural fit and what makes merging a logical choice.”
The announcement comes four years after a partnership between the two nonprofit health-care organizations was established and follows similar mergers, purchases and affiliations between other hospitals in the region:
* In 2012, Danville-based Geisinger Health System, which operates Geisinger Wyoming Valley in Plains Township and Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre hospitals in Luzerne County, acquired Community Hospital of Scranton.
* In recent years the for-profit Community Health System, of Franklin Tenn., has acquired eight hospitals in the region: Wilkes-Barre General, Tyler Hospital in Tunkhannock, Special Care Hospital in Nanticoke, First Hospital in Kingston and the former Mercy and Moses Taylor hospitals in Scranton, Mid-Valley Hospital in Peckville and Berwick Hospital.
Edwards said that the successful relationship between the two systems led to discussions about how to continually strengthen the relationship.
“It’s really a natural progression,” Edwards said. “As we discussed how to move forward, it really made sense.”
Dr. Ronald Swinfard, president and CEO of the Lehigh Valley Health Network, said the partnership benefits both systems and he sees the ability to expand offerings available to Hazleton patients. He said he hopes the Hazleton community will not view Lehigh Valley as an interloper.
“We’re ready to do that with you, not to you,” Swinfard said.
At separate meetings in April, the boards of both organizations signed a formal agreement to allow a full asset merger of the Greater Hazleton Health Alliance into Lehigh Valley Health Network. Brian Downs, a spokesman for the network , said that because the deal is for a full asset merger, there is no price tag attached because there is no sale being made.
Downs said the merger transaction must be reviewed and approved by the Federal Trade Commission, the state Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Health. Once all that is done, the merger date will be determined and so will additional details.
When the merger is complete, the 150-bed Hazleton General Hospital and the Hazleton Health and Wellness Center will remain separate entities under Lehigh Valley Health Network, officials said.
The board of directors will remain in place, but network-appointed members will have a majority of the seats. The Alliance Medical Group will become a separate division of the Lehigh Valley Physician Group.
Edwards said there are no plans for reductions in staff, though the opposite is possible.
“We would anticipate growth,” Edwards said. “Growth means more jobs.”
Thomas Kennedy, chairman of the Greater Hazleton Health Alliance Board of Directors, made the formal announcement and said the plans have been in the works for more than a year. He called the decision “absolutely the right thing to do.”
William Hecht, the chairman of the Lehigh Valley Health Network Board of Directors, also praised the merger and called it “a giant first step in enhancing the health and well being in both communities.”
Donna Palermo, the president of the Greater Hazleton Chamber of Commerce, called the proposed merger “a great benefit to our community and our citizens.” “People who currently travel out of our area, mostly to Lehigh Valley, can now receive their care here locally,” said Palermo who, along with Hazleton Mayor Joe Yannuzzi, was in the audience to hear the announcement.
Mergers, acquisitions and closures have become the norm in health care in recent years as population shift, rising costs and greater demand for certain services have caused many systems to make changes.
The Greater Hazleton Health Alliance, which employs more than 1,000, itself was among those at the forefront of health alliances for the greater good of a community. It was formed in 1996 with the consolidation of Hazleton’s two hospitals, Hazleton General and Hazleton-St. Joseph.
The Lehigh Valley Health Network employs 12,000 and includes two full-service hospitals: Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Salisbury Township — which includes an additional clinical campus, Lehigh Valley Hospital-17th Street in Allentown — and Lehigh Valley Hospital-Muhlenberg in Bethlehem. Lehigh Valley acquired the Muhlenberg hospital 15 years ago.
Pending regulatory approval, officials from the two systems said they plan to do a needs assessment to determine how the merged organization can meet the health care needs of the expanded Lehigh Valley Health Network community.
Until approval is given, both systems will continue operating as they have. The pending sale of the former St. Joseph’s Hospital also will move forward, and Edwards said he believes that deal will close before the merger approval is granted.