The leaders of the two largest employers in Springfield – CoxHealth and Mercy Springfield Communities – took to the stage as the main event for the May 17 annual Health Care Outlook event, sharing a message that industry collaboration and competition can, and should, coexist.
Both Max Buetow, president and CEO of CoxHealth, and David Argueta, president of Mercy Hospitals Springfield, said collaboration is beneficial for the health systems and the communities they serve. A panel discussion featuring the two, along with moderators Amanda Hedgpeth, chief operating officer and executive vice president with CoxHealth, and Marie Moore, chief nursing officer with Mercy, took place before an audience of 310 during the Springfield Business Development Corp. event at the DoubleTree by Hilton. The SBDC is the economic development arm of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re very much attached to the hip when it comes to our missional efforts,” said Buetow, who was promoted to lead CoxHealth in June 2022 after the retirement of Steve Edwards. “It’s neat when you work in an environment like health care to be able to see your competition is striving for the same goal you are.”
Upon joining CoxHealth in 2012, Buetow said he recognized the health care organizations had a mutual respect. However, when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in 2020, he said it provided an opportunity for those in health care to think across the industry as a whole and not just individually. That spirit of collaboration for CoxHealth and Mercy increased amid the pandemic, he said.
“I look back, and there were a lot of times our teams were connecting on calls to say, ‘What do you need and how can we help?’”
Like Buetow, Argueta also is a year into his leadership post in Springfield. He came to town in May 2022 from Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City. He succeeded Brent Hubbard, who exited to become chief operating officer at Integris Health in Oklahoma City. In a Mercy restructuring move, he also absorbed some regional duties of former Mercy Springfield Communities President Craig McCoy, whose position was eliminated last July.
Argueta said in his health care career, which also includes stops in Houston and Waco, Texas, developing relationships with colleagues has always been important.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to do one thing: serve our community in an exceptional manner,” he said, noting Mercy’s and CoxHealth’s strategic plans are “probably going to look pretty similar.”
The workforce totals for both health systems are on the rise, officials say. Hedgpeth said after the event that CoxHealth’s employee count has increased to over 12,800, up from 12,619 the company reported for 2022. Mercy locally employs around 9,160 people, according to officials. It reported just under 9,000 employees to Springfield Business Journal in May 2022.
Both health systems still need lots of additional employees, officials say. Hedgpeth said about 800 openings remain at CoxHealth, while Argueta said Mercy “has hundreds of open positions.”
A 2022 report by consulting firm Kaufman, Hall & Associates LLC projected more than half of U.S. hospitals would have negative margins – meaning expenses would exceed revenue – for last year. However, CoxHealth’s margin currently sits in the positive at 1%, Hedgpeth said. While it’s below the health system’s goal of 2.5%-3%, she said CoxHealth has remained diligent on how it manages expenses and meets demand.
“That has allowed us to continue to function and grow even with those very tight margins,” she said, noting CoxHealth’s revenue was $5.9 billion in 2022, up from $5.7 billion a year prior.
Mercy officials reported local revenue of $5.06 billion in 2022, down from $5.18 billion in 2021. Argueta could not provide additional financial data by press time.
Competition benefiting quality of care for the community was a perspective Buetow said he and Argueta shared from their first conversation over pizza at The Big Slice.
“We’re going to be fiercely competitive in our company in 80% of the things we’re going to do in this community, because competition breeds improvement,” Buetow said, noting that includes introducing new technologies or attracting physicians. “I jokingly say, ‘I want you to do great things. I just want to do them with a plus sign at CoxHealth.’
“In many of those cases, we want to use competition as a way to serve the community.”
That doesn’t mean CoxHealth does its work without Mercy’s knowledge. Buetow said if the health system is working on something independently, the first person he’ll talk to about it at Mercy is Argueta.
“I don’t ever want to have a ‘gotcha.’ We won’t surprise each other with something that’s coming out,” Buetow said.
Moore said competition and collaboration is unique in the health care industry.
“The two can coexist together in a very symbiotic relationship where that fierce spirit of competition is what will drive excellence and better health care in our communities,” she said.
Clay Goddard, southwest region president at Burrell Behavioral Health, said collaboration is an expectation in the Springfield community. He said both Burrell and the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, where he worked as its leader for four years, are frequent collaborators in the health care field.
“Springfield is an interesting sized community,” he said. “We’re large enough that we have all these anchoring institutions. But we’re not so large that we can’t get all of the players around the table. There’s no excuse to not have really strong relationships in a town this size.”
Hospice care provider Compassus regularly collaborates with CoxHealth as most of its clients utilize the health care system over Mercy, said Julia Murray, director of virtual care.
“It’s really ensuring that we have collaboration about our patient population and who are shared patients,” she said. “For instance, if we have a patient going into the hospital, we are either getting to the hospital with our patient to advocate for them with the CoxHealth team or calling and getting an update on the patient. We’re just making sure we have that continuum of care.”
Murray, who attended the chamber event, said she agrees with Buetow and Argueta that the community is better served when health care companies are cooperative.
Compassus relies on frequent communication with CoxHealth and Mercy when it has clients in their hospitals, she said.
“Hospice is such a different health care service,” she said. “At the point that patients are on hospice they’re not seeking aggressive treatment. So, if they go to the ER, we need to be managing their symptoms and not putting them through a (magnetic resonance imaging) machine and doing all these aggressive testing and treatments. We need to get their symptoms managed so they can get back home. That’s what they want.”
Argueta said the informed, active patient, who also is a consumer, is improving health care. Data and analytics are going to continue to shape the way health systems care for patients in a proactive and personalized approach.
“People want to access health care the way that they want it,” Argueta said. “We owe it to our community and those that we serve to provide that personalized, high touch, high quality, safe environment to receive care.”
Buetow said CoxHealth and Mercy will continue to duke it out in many ways in the community, but with an intentionality of preserving a strong relationship.
“When we have those opportunities to coexist and collaborate and partner even in the future, you’re going to see us going there as well,” he said.
Springfield Business Journal’s 2023 Trusted Advisers event honors 20 businesspeople.