Emory-WellStar merger rapped by consumer group

ajc.com

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

As merger talks continue between Emory Healthcare and WellStar Health System, a consumer advocacy group is voicing concern about the potential impact in the metro Atlanta market.

Georgia Watch said such consolidation “is leading to higher prices for consumers with little to no improvement in the quality of care individuals receive.”

Beth Stephens, the group’s health access program director, also said she is concerned that the public comment period about the merger lacks transparency.

“We want to know what stakeholders are being engaged, and why consumer advocacy organizations are being left out of the conversation,” said Stephens, who submitted her organization’s comments to Emory and WellStar this week.

Emory and WellStar issued a statement saying they “remain in discussion on this initiative and anticipate providing additional information in early April. We look forward to engaging with the community throughout the planning process.’’

The merger between Emory University’s health care assets and WellStar would create the biggest nonprofit health system in Georgia, and one of the largest in the nation.

The potential combination was announced Feb. 9. Officials said initial talks would continue for 45 days, under a resolution passed by each organization’s board.

Completing a merger would take a year or more, leaders of each organization said.

A merger would combine Emory’s academic health system with WellStar’s expertise in running community hospitals. It would also create a system with reach across Atlanta and into the northwest suburbs, where WellStar dominates.

Leaders of each organization emphasized that a goal was to create a new entity that would deliver the highest quality of care.

Georgia Watch, in its letter, cited a 2012 study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that found that hospital consolidation generally results in increased prices.

Hospital consolidation has emerged as major trend in Georgia and the nation. The number of mergers or acquisitions nationally has doubled since 2009, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association opinion article.

Experts say mergers and alliances are driven by the economic environment in health care, which is being shaped, in part, by changes from the Affordable Care Act.