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Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas talks about merger with Rush Health Systems

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In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, Thomas says the deal offers the chance to expand more services to Mississippi and helps extend Ochsner’s reach. Rush is now known as Ochsner Rush Health.

Ochsner Health of Louisiana completed the merger with Rush Health Systems earlier this month. Rush is now known as Oschner Rush Health.

Ochsner Health of Louisiana completed the merger with Rush Health Systems earlier this month. Rush is now known as Oschner Rush Health.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the pace of hospital consolidation, Ochsner Health has bucked the trend.

Ochsner Health recently completed its merger with Rush Health Systems, announcing Aug. 1 that the deal was done. Rush is now Ochsner Rush Health. The deal brings seven more hospitals into Ochsner Health, which is based in Louisiana and operates 40 hospitals in the Gulf South.

Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health, spoke with Chief Healthcare Executive about the merger, the work to complete the deal, and the plans to expand healthcare services in Mississippi.

“We’re really excited at Ochsner about merging Rush Health into Ochsner Health,” Thomas says. “I think it’s going to be great for the citizens in that community and great for that organization. We’ve been working on this for a long time. This has been a long time coming.”

The two systems announced their intention to merge in June 2021.

“The team’s done a great job on this, and we’re just excited to have it completed,” Thomas says. “And now we’ll work on the integration. Now the hard work comes.” (See excerpts of our interview in this video. The story continues below the video.)

Partnership is ‘a natural’

There have been some major hospital consolidations announced or completed in the past year, including Atrium Health and Advocate Aurora Health unveiling plans to merge. Intermountain Healthcare concluded its merger with SCL Health in April.

While some big mergers have been proposed, fewer hospital deals are happening. There were only 49 hospital mergers in 2021, down from 79 the previous year, according to Kaufman Hall, a consulting firm. In the first half of the year, 25 hospital mergers were announced. Analysts say hospital leaders have had to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and haven’t had the time to explore deals, but they expected merger activity to increase in the coming year.

The COVID-19 pandemic added more hurdles to the typically complex process of merging two hospital systems, Thomas says.

“I think the pandemic has made everything more complicated,” he says. “We’ve had to navigate the pandemic. We were having discussions with Rush prior to that. Certainly there are things we had to put on hold and took more time to do them, because we were dealing with the pandemic, going through the vaccination process.

“We all have the workforce challenges today, we all have the inflationary and economic challenges today,” he says. “But we also knew this was an important time to complete this merger, and an important time for Rush to really go to a new level in the services that they provide in that region.”

Even with the work involved, Thomas said the partnership with Rush is “a natural.”

“We think Rush brings a great reputation in Mississippi, covers an important part of that state, and allows us to continue to think about how we expand outside of Louisiana and into other regions,” Thomas says.

Ochsner has had plenty of experience with mergers of late. Ochsner Health merged with Lafayette General Health in a deal that closed in 2020.

“Ochsner has done a lot of partnerships, several mergers over the past decade,” Thomas says. “We’ve really built an expertise and a team that works on this all the time, so they’ve done a great job there.”

Expanding services, digital health capabilities

Thomas says he thinks the merger will offer more healthcare services for patients in Mississippi, notably the Meridian area.

“Our main focus is how we continue to expand and grow care in the Meridian region,” he says. “Our principle is local care is best care. And so we are absolutely going to continue to work with the Rush team and the physicians and all the clinicians there to expand and grow services in that market and keep as many people as local as we can. That’s really the focus of this merger.”

Thomas says he sees great opportunities to expand telehealth and remote patient monitoring capabilities for Ochsner Rush, which is already on Ochsner’s telehealth platform.

“We have pretty advanced capabilities in remote patient management in hypertension and diabetes that we’ll be bringing to that market, building more connectivity to the home,” he says. “There are tools we’ve used at Ochsner. We have about 20,000 patients that are on our chronic disease management, remote patient management tools. We’ll be bringing those to that region. Those are new offerings folks have not had in that region previously.”

Ochsner Health is still working with the Rush team to determine which specialty areas will also be expanded.

“We’re continuing to formulate those plans. We haven’t really announced exactly what those specialties will be,” he says. “Certainly, primary care is an area we’re going to be expanding. There will be certain medical and surgical subspecialties. The exact areas we’re focused on are still continuing to be worked on and evaluated.”

“Every partnership we’ve been involved in, we’ve seen the expansion of unique patients, expansion of services, improvement in quality, access and service in the facilities, so I think we’ll see that at Rush Health as well,” he said.

In addition, patients from Ochsner Rush will have more access to clinical trials.

“We have about 750 active clinical trials, well over 4,000 patients on those trials,” Thomas says. “It is absolutely something we continue to expand and grow. Folks won’t have to leave their home to have access to many of these trials. That is part of our strategy as we expand and grow in the region.”

Ochsner’s size and scale, its information technology platform, and experience in value-based care, offer the capability to provide more services to Rush’s market, Thomas says. Ochsner Health has also pointed to the potential for using artificial intelligence to spur improvements in patient care.

“We’ve invested a lot in our digital strategies,” Thomas says. “We’ve now taken global risk in Medicare for decades, and have a lot of experience in value-based reimbursement and population health. Those are components that we bring to Rush, as well as our national reputation for quality, safety and our clinical excellence.”

Plus, he notes Rush has a strong presence and long history of service in eastern Mississippi.

Both Ochsner Health and Rush were founded by physicians, he notes, and the systems have worked together for decades.

“There’s been relationships between the systems going back close to 50 years,” he says.

Coming Friday: Ochsner Health CEO Warner Thomas talks about the system’s efforts to improve health equity.


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