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Rhode Island hospital system expands university partnership, and takes a new name

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Lifespan and Brown University have finalized plans for a closer relationship, and Lifespan will soon become Brown University Health.

Lifespan and Brown University have worked together for decades, but now they are taking their partnership to another level.

Images: Brown University

Christina H. Paxson, president of Brown University, and John Fernandez, president and CEO of Lifespan Health, say their expanded partnership will lead to better healthcare, medical education and research. Lifespan will be known as Brown University Health.

The Rhode Island hospital system and the university announced Thursday that they are expanding their relationship with a host of new affiliation agreements, including significant financial investments. As part of the relationship, Lifespan is adopting a new brand name: Brown University Health.

Lifespan will move to the new name over the next several months, and will be commonly called Brown Health. No date has been set for the name change, and the rebranding will probably take several years, officials said.

However, Lifespan will remain a separate organization from Brown University. Officials stressed that Lifespan and Brown aren’t merging and aren’t gaining any ownership stake in each other.

Since the institutions will remain separate, officials said they won’t need the approval of lawmakers or regulators. Officials said they did consult the Rhode Island Health Department and the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office about their plans.

Officials with Lifespan and Brown say that the partnership will lead to better healthcare services for patients, improving the education and training of new clinicians and aid in recruiting top talent.

Brown has committed to investing $150 million into Lifespan over a seven-year period, with amounts ranging from $15 million to $25 million annually. After that investment is complete, Lifespan plans to invest $15 million annually toward Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School for education and research programs.

In addition, Brown University’s investment office will manage $600 million to $800 million of Lifespan’s investment portfolio, with the hope of yielding better returns to help finance Lifespan’s operations. Officials said Brown will take over investments gradually, likely about $200 million annually over the next four years.

John Fernandez, Lifespan’s president and CEO, said the agreements will help strengthen the organization. Officials touted the opportunity to improve Lifespan’s facilities and expand the system’s electronic health records. Fernandez said that inadequate funding has hurt Lifespan’s ability to invest sufficiently in its facilities.

“This enhanced relationship with Brown is one part of the solution to ensure that our health system can continue to offer the people of Rhode Island the opportunity to access high-quality treatment close to home,” Fernandez said in a statement.

Christina H. Paxson, president of Brown University, said the expanded partnership will lead to better training of clinicians and improved medical research.

“Brown and Lifespan are taking important steps to strengthen our longstanding affiliation with the goal of improving the health of families in Rhode Island, both through medical advances in care and state-of-the-art medical training for the next generation of physicians,” Paxson said in a statement. “These agreements also strengthen the work we have been doing for several years to integrate research and break down barriers for physicians and scientists who translate discoveries in the lab into treatments benefiting patients.”

Lifespan has weathered financial challenges in recent years, finishing the 2022 fiscal year with a $76 million loss. Fitch Ratings retained a negative outlook for the system last September, and noted an “underinvestment” in its facilities due to recent financial strain.

Lifespan boasts a 55% share of the Rhode Island market, more than twice as much as its closest competitor, Care New England, according to Fitch. Lifespan and Care New England had planned a merger of the two systems at one point, but they dropped those plans due to opposition from regulators.

“The investments from Brown are critical and will help Lifespan address its immediate challenges,” Fernandez said in a statement. “Lifespan will still need to continuously improve its operations while expanding and diversifying its revenue opportunities and work toward creating a more balanced reimbursement structure on par with those of neighboring states.”

Lifespan and Brown have had a partnership since 1969, when an affiliation designated Rhode Island Hospital as the primary teaching hospital for Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

Fernandez said the investments will help Lifespan’s facilities compete with rivals.

“It is critical that facilities, systems and technologies are not only modernized, but are cutting-edge in order to be able to compete with out-of-state companies, new entrants to the market and large national providers, particularly for-profit businesses,” Fernandez said in a statement. “Equally important is investing in workforce development to retain existing, first-rate clinicians and employees and to recruit future top talent.”

The agreement also carries implications for Lifespan’s governance.

Under the agreements, the dean of Brown’s medical school will serve as Lifespan’s chief academic officer. Brown University’s president and the medical school dean will also serve as ex officio members on Lifespan’s board of directors.

Brown and Lifespan said their new agreements will lead to more work together in population health and public health, and they will continue to invest in programs to offer more care to underserved communities.

Paxson pointed out that the agreement, including the rebranding of Lifespan, mirrors other partnerships between health systems and universities.

“The new agreements move the relationship between Brown and Lifespan to a more contemporary model in line with other affiliation agreements we see across the country, where the academic-medical affiliation is reflected through a shared name between the hospital system and the academic institution,” Paxson said in a statement.

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