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Mercy partnership looks to fill gap in pediatric care – without CoxHealth

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A newly formed pediatric partnership from Mercy Springfield Communities is seeking to fill service gaps that health system officials say have existed for years – but the arrangement does not involve partnering with CoxHealth to open a stand-alone pediatric hospital as previously planned.

Local Mercy executives said in a March 19 interview with Springfield Business Journal that the goal is to bring Children’s Mercy Kansas City services and staff to its Springfield campus as soon as possible.

“Our focus is how do we elevate pediatric care so that children can be served here, close to home,” said David Argueta, president of Mercy Southwest Missouri, a region that includes the Springfield market.

Health system officials cited internal research in reporting that 27% of patients leave the region for pediatric care.

“That 27% that’s being outsourced, we can expect to keep that in this community,” said Marie Moore, chief nursing officer at Mercy Springfield Communities.

Moore said some Children’s Mercy Kansas City services would be added in the near future but could not yet offer a timeline or indicate what types of services. Future service expansions would be implemented through a long-range plan in three- to five-year increments, she said.

“It’s really about growth and elevation of specialty care,” Argueta said.

An independent operation in business for more than 125 years, Children’s Mercy Kansas City is separate from the local health system – despite the name similarities to its Chesterfield-based Mercy parent company.

The financial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

CoxHealth ‘surprised’
In a statement issued the morning after Mercy’s announcement, CoxHealth officials said they “were surprised to learn late last night that Mercy has ended the proposed collaboration in order to pursue an exclusive partnership with Children’s Mercy in Kansas City.”

“We are greatly disappointed that Mercy made this announcement with minimal notice to us, and to the community,” the statement reads. “Unfortunately, Mercy’s unilateral decision to end the collaboration is in direct conflict with the clear results of the mutually agreed upon process.”

CoxHealth officials declined a request for an interview by press time.

Mercy Springfield Communities and CoxHealth announced in November that they were teaming up on a first-of-its-kind collaboration to address pediatric care gaps in the area. At the time, the two health systems were searching for a full-service pediatric partner to serve as the third organization in the pact, with plans for a full-service pediatric hospital. Officials with the health systems said at the time that the partnership had been in the works for years and that their research had not uncovered a similar partnership involving three health systems that offer pediatrics. Health system officials said the partnership marked the first time CoxHealth and Mercy collaborated at this scale.

The news release from Mercy announcing its partnership with Children’s Mercy Kansas City indicated the health system was unable to reach an agreement with CoxHealth after a request for proposal period yielded several potential partners, including Children’s Mercy Kansas City.

A Mercy statement provided to SBJ indicates Argueta and CoxHealth President and CEO Max Buetow met the night before Mercy’s announcement.

“Since we had already extended the RFP well past the initial deadline, and it was clear we wouldn’t be able to reach an agreement with CoxHealth, we felt it was time to move forward,” the statement reads.

In the interview with SBJ, Mercy officials stressed that the arrangement with Children’s Mercy is not exclusive. Moore noted Children’s Mercy Kansas City would operate independently in the Springfield market, meaning other health systems could work with the organization and refer patients.

“Children’s Mercy wants to be in this community. Our commitment is helping that to happen,” Argueta said.

Speaking about CoxHealth, he said a “sustainable path forward together” was unable to be found.

“That became clear over a series of conversations, really over the last month, month and a half,” he said. “Just because we couldn’t see a path forward with this does not preclude us from being collaborative in the future.”

Community impact
The CoxHealth and Mercy partnership announcement last year was met with positive feedback from some in the business community.

In SBJ’s January CEO Roundtable podcast on economic development, Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Morrow said the partnership would be a boon for the region.

“That would be an enormous regional impact,” he said at the time, pointing to the impact of care for those who need it in the community and the potential workforce impact. “If we do it the right way, children’s health care can be a cornerstone for a really impactful, beyond probably most of our imagination type of development if our communities and our business community come around these two health systems who have led in a very unique way and provide the support that is necessary to get that going.”

In a March 20 interview with SBJ, Morrow said Mercy’s announcement that did not include CoxHealth took him and other community members by surprise.

“It’s disappointing that we aren’t able to proceed with the grander vision that we all hoped to proceed with. I, like many people, would have liked to see us do something that was unprecedented,” he said. “That said, I think there are opportunities for enhanced children’s health care in our community.”

At a December community listening session on the pediatric care collaboration, health system officials had said a spring 2024 announcement was planned for the yet-to-be-identified third partner to bring the pediatric hospital to the city. At the event, Buetow said the third partner likely would be an academic institution, adding the health systems had received “a lot of responses from nationally recognized organizations” in the month since the RFP process had begun.

“We’re also here to make a commitment to this community that we’re going to do this,” Buetow said at the event. “We’re telling you this isn’t just something we’re dreaming and scheming about. This is something we’re going to make happen.”

Mercy and Cox leaders last year made the case for the need for a pediatric hospital, noting the health systems have a collective service area that includes some 225,000 children.

“There are certain specialties that we simply do not have enough patients on each side to be able to sustain them,” said Dr. Kofi Asare-Bawuah, medical director for children’s services at CoxHealth, at the time. “If we pool our resources together, we will be able to provide specialists.”

CoxHealth officials said in its recent statement that the health system would work with the community to consider next steps for the future of local pediatric care.

“CoxHealth prides itself on being a locally governed organization that is dedicated to our neighbors. We will make decisions based on what is best for the children of our communities, independent of corporate self-interest,” the statement reads. “The families of southwest Missouri deserve outstanding care close to home, and CoxHealth will continue to boldly pursue the elevation of pediatric care.”

Children’s Mercy reputation
Children’s Mercy Kansas City is a leader in pediatric genomics, personalized medicine and other pediatric services, according to officials with Mercy.

Mercy officials said they engaged brand and consumer research firm Monigle to independently survey 300 “health care decision-makers” in southwest Missouri before landing on the partnership. The survey found a preference for Children’s Mercy Kansas City by a 17% margin compared with other pediatric hospitals in the region. According to the survey, 17% of children in the area have received care from Children’s Mercy Kansas City, compared with 8% at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and 2% at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, also in St. Louis.

“They exist to serve children,” Argueta said of Children’s Mercy Kansas City. “We’re talking a nationally respected, nationally recognized organization.”

A spokesperson for Children’s Mercy Kansas City provided a statement to SBJ.

“We’re excited to be collaborating with Mercy Hospital Springfield to expand pediatric services in the Springfield area so patients and families can stay close to home for specialty care,” the statement reads. “This is a new relationship, and many details are still being worked out. It is early in the process, and we are working together to define the scope of services and necessary agreements that will guide this investment in the health and well-being for all children in the Springfield area. We are working toward a solution to bring enhanced care on an expeditious basis.”

Children’s Mercy Kansas City operates a 367-bed, free-standing children’s hospital in Kansas City and more than a dozen health care facilities in Missouri and Kansas, according to its website. It has some 800 doctors, thousands of nurses and hundreds of allied health professionals.

In the Mercy release, Children’s Mercy Kansas City President and CEO Paul Kempinski further spoke to the importance of pediatric care in the Springfield community.

“We are excited to collaborate with Mercy to increase pediatric services in the community to ensure families have access to world-class research and innovative care close to home,” Kempinski said in the release. “By creating a pediatric system of excellence in southwest Missouri, our patients will no longer need to drive several hours for appointments and care, which will help improve access and outcomes for all the children we serve in the area. Fundamentally, this is about providing excellent care to kids in their community.”

Children’s Mercy Kansas City has been named among the best children’s hospitals in the United States by U.S. News and World Report, ranking in nine specialties.

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