Emory Healthcare and WellStar are two of metro Atlanta's biggest health care players.

Emory, WellStar start planning merger details

Emory and WellStar officials say they are ready to move beyond preliminary merger talks and into the “design phase” of a new combined health care system.

Trustees of Emory University and WellStar Health System approved a resolution this week to begin more detailed planning, the two organizations announced.

The combination of Emory Healthcare and WellStar would be easily the state’s biggest health system. But even as planning moves ahead, the deal still has not been clinched and a merger won’t come quickly, officials emphasized.

The planned deal was announced Feb. 9. Officials said initial talks between the two metro Atlanta giants would continue for 45 days, and the latest announcement makes clear that the merger idea has a green light.

Details to be worked out during the next phase include a name for the combined system, as well as its corporate office location, governance and structure. That is expected to take at least a year.

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

The biggest challenge is fitting together a community hospital system and an academic medical center, Reynold Jennings, CEO of WellStar, said Friday. “The physicians have to be able to work together,’’ he added. Talks between leaders of each medical staff have already begun, Jennings said Friday.

Mergers and looser hospital alliances have accelerated nationwide due to industry trends driven, in part, by the Affordable Care Act.

Some deals have come under scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, but Emory and WellStar leaders said they believe their pairing would not raise major antitrust concerns.

Georgia Watch, a consumer advocacy group, recently voiced concern, saying such provider 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 a public comment period about the merger lacks transparency.

Both Emory and WellStar officials said Friday the merger process will be transparent and noted that consumers can submit questions or comments to communications@emoryhealthcare.org or communityfeedback@wellstar.org. Emory has also posted a public “frequently asked questions’’ section on its website: http://emoryhealthcare.org/emory-wellstar/index.html

This story was done in collaboration with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.Andy Miller is the CEO and editor of Georgia Health News.

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