BREAKING NEWS

BREAKING NEWS

Patients, and patience, are key to settling Lutheran ‘divorce’ CHS accused of sabotaging doctors’ bid.

As Dr. Todd Rumsey concluded his remarks to about 200 fellow Lutheran Health Network doctors and employees Wednesday, he tried to reassure the community of the group’s commitment to patients despite the growing and increasingly public schism between the local network and its Tennessee-based owners.

But what’s really needed now is patience, because even though the doctors have said they consider Lutheran’s relationship with Community Health Systems irreconcilable, their hoped-for divorce seems nowhere in sight – and that can’t be good news for anybody but Lutheran’s competitors.

The practice of medicine requires training and skill, of course, but the patient-doctor relationship is at its core, and lasting relationships are built on a foundation of trust. But now, in the space of barely two weeks, CHS executives have suggested that Rumsey and other members of Fort Wayne Physicians LLC were unserious or incompetent in their attempt to secure new ownership for Lutheran, and Rumsey responded Wednesday by questioning those executives’ veracity and accusing them of sabotaging the doctors’ bid.

In other words, somebody’s either mistaken or not telling the truth. And that’s a prescription for doubt, not trust.

Rumsey told me he can document every claim made Wednesday: how CHS agreed to allow Fort Wayne Physicians to seek a qualified buyer at an acceptable price; how CHS attempted to muzzle doctors who might criticize the company or report medical mistakes; how CHS unexpectedly increased its asking price by about $1 billion after the “non-disparagement” dispute was resolved.

I’m not in a position to know which side is right because I haven’t seen Rumsey’s proof and CHS has not yet responded to his comments.

But this much is obvious already: Open warfare has broken out between Lutheran Health Network and CHS, and the prognosis is not good unless the bloodshed ends quickly. How that might happen is unclear. Rumsey said that after his address to the media, doctors and employees Wednesday a private meeting was held at which 200 doctors expressed interest in joining the 10-member Fort Wayne Physicians LLC, which last month presented the sale proposal to CHS on behalf of doctors, a private-equity group and others. “(The additional physicians) want to know how they can be involved in the process going forward,” he said.

Their challenge will be daunting. Even if CHS really is the medically indifferent, bottom-line driven corporate monolith detractors portray it to be, the company has the right and even the obligation to hold or sell its assets as it sees fit. In fact, if CHS is indeed as money-driven as critics insist, a sale will be influenced more by price than by invoking the need for quality health care.

In one sense, that’s unfortunate because Rumsey insists the story really isn’t about a sale at all. “This is a patient-centric discussion: What does the community need?” CHS, he said, has proved to be a partner unable or unwilling to meet that need. But health care is also a business, and if $2.4 billion wasn’t enough, Rumsey and his peers have two choices: somehow convince CHS to change its mind or up the ante. Rumsey said the doctors’ “overwhelming” show of support Wednesday will ensure the strategy moving forward represents broad consensus. “We not just 10 doctors doing kamikaze things,” he said.

Some sort of mediation could help, and even though government has little direct role, Mayor Tom Henry has indicated he is willing to get involved. Henry talked with CHS officials this week and “extended an invitation for a future, in-person meeting with CHS, Lutheran and our office,” spokesman John Perlich said.

Lutheran doctors and employees should be commended for fighting for their patients and principles, but with a loss of $1.7 billion last year CHS has its own concerns. If the relationship cannot be mended it should be ended, but nothing gets in the way of a mutually satisfactory divorce like partners who are too busy fighting to settle. Henry’s meeting can’t come soon enough. <br>

<i> This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355. </i>