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Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives
The center as operated by Newt Gingrich gave members access to policymakers.
Photo credit: GETTY IMAGES

Rethinking Transformation

WellStar buys Gingrich consultancy, shifts focus to health systems

By Beth Kutscher
Posted: November 17, 2012 - 12:01 am ET

WellStar Health System, Marietta, Ga., is taking the Center for Health Transformation out of bankruptcy and recreating the former consultancy as a Southeast regional collaborative.

For a purchase price of $20,000, WellStar is buying the rights to the center's name, trademark and website. But unlike the original Center for Health Transformation, the new entity focuses primarily on health systems and aims to create a roundtable of sorts among neighboring but noncompeting peers.

Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich established the center as a for-profit entity in 2003, and it had been an influential voice in healthcare policy discussions until it filed to liquidate its assets in April.

Its creditor list, made public as part of the bankruptcy proceedings, included well-known provider groups, payers, pharmaceutical companies and information technology firms—including not only WellStar but Sutter Health, Amedisys and Gundersen Lutheran Health System.

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Members paid dues ranging from $20,000 to $200,000 for a chance to rub shoulders with Gingrich and other policymakers. That sort of access led to the contention that Gingrich was engaging in a form of unofficial lobbying on their behalf—which he firmly denied.

Nevertheless, his views on electronic health records, e-prescribing and even accountable care organizations often informed policy discussions on Capitol Hill, and some had a lasting impact on the shape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“They were definitely on the frontline when it came to healthcare reform,” said Kevin Bloye, a spokesman for the Georgia Hospital Association, which was a member of the center until last year, when Gingrich stepped down to launch his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. “For us, it was a chance to be at the table.”

WellStar's blueprint for the center envisions a different sort of access. Its 20 charter members will be not-for-profit systems in different markets, which will fund the now-not-for-profit center with annual dues and share ideas about navigating the post-reform healthcare landscape.

WellStar has already prescreened 30 potential member systems in 11 southern states that will receive membership invitations.

Reynold Jennings, president and CEO of the five-hospital system, noted that capping membership will allow the center to have more productive discussions. He said the goal was to find likeminded systems that are similar in population and payer mix, as well as close enough for ease of traveling.

And he added that keeping the same name—rather than building the group from scratch—will make it easier for people to understand its mission.

“The whole goal of this thing is to become faster, better at communicating information,” Jennings said. “That's what we want to carry on.”

While hospitals have traditionally relied on the American Hospital Association and its state-level counterparts to participate in policy matters, they haven't exactly been idle either.

Don May, managing director at Farragut Square Group and former deputy for policy at the AHA, noted that hospitals have often engaged in policy discussions—and some such as the Mayo Clinic have set up their own health policy centers.

“It may be a way of pulling resources together to tackle healthcare problems with healthcare leaders,” he said about WellStar's acquisition. “I'm presuming that they get a lot of value out of those discussions.”

Collaborations among health systems also have become increasingly common across the country, even among organizations in a position of financial strength—where the aim is to build scale and clout without exchanging capital.

WellStar itself said last week that it was forming what it calls the Georgia Health Collaborative with Piedmont Healthcare, Atlanta, a nonownership agreement that will focus on not only sharing ideas but also realizing economies of scale. Piedmont, a former member of Gingrich's consultancy, also will participate in the new center, Jennings said.

Beaufort Longest, professor of health policy and management at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, noted that the Affordable Care Act sets up incentives for systems to work together to be more efficient. “Those incentives are very real; they turn into real dollars,” he said.

Yet he noted that the new Center for Health Transformation is unlikely to have much resemblance to its predecessor group. “I'd be surprised if that's what they had in mind,” he said, adding that it “should be viewed as a learning organization … not to try to influence the shape of policy.”

Dr. Robin Wilson, WellStar's chief health innovation officer and the center's executive director, pointed to the Ohio Children's Hospitals Solutions for Patient Safety as a model similar to what the new group hopes to accomplish.

Wilson said the center will focus on the clinical delivery side—namely improving quality and access—and will have a board of advisers that its members will select. But it will be about more than just exchanging information, he said. “We're going to be more action and results-driven.”

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