When a reporter writes an article that describes Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. as the nation's largest purchaser of medical supplies, Mack Haning, VHA's top spokesman, sends a letter or makes a phone call to correct the misperception.
Such contact is part of a national educational campaign announced in February by VHA and SunHealth Alliance (Feb. 20, p. 2). The campaign's goal is to highlight the community benefits of not-for-profit hospitals and to spell out the differences between the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors.
It stems from resentment among not-for-profits that Columbia is being portrayed as a more efficient healthcare provider.
"VHA purchases $6.4 billion worth of supplies (for its 1,132 hospitals)," said Haning. "That's almost three times more than Columbia" spends for its 202 hospitals. SunHealth purchased $2 billion worth for its 310 hospitals last year.
Columbia executives were unavailable for comment on the campaign.
Besides contacting reporters, the VHA-SunHealth campaign includes meeting with editorial boards and encouraging shareholder hospitals to write letters to editors. Budget figures for the campaign were unavailable.
"We are not saying Columbia is an aw-Alliances
ful company," Haning said. Reporters "need to understand there is another side to the story."
After the campaign was announced, Richard Davidson, president of the American Hospital Association, called a summit in which VHA, SunHealth, Columbia, Healthtrust and the Federation of American Health Systems were asked to tone down the debate (April 3, p. 8).
Through a spokesman, Davidson said he was concerned that aggressive public statements from both sectors could weaken the industry's lobbying effort to prevent Medicare and Medicaid funding reductions.
No agreements were reached, and alliance executives said they would continue to compare and contrast the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. But alliance executives now appear to be less aggressive in discussing details of the campaign with journalists as they were when it began.
In an earlier interview, Ben Latimer, SunHealth's president, contended that investor-owned giants receive more media attention than not-for-profit hospitals and alliances primarily because they are listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Over the past two years, national publications such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Business Week have published dozens of articles about investor-owned hospital chains but have given short shrift to the not-for-profit sector, VHA and SunHealth officials argue.
"The Wall Street Journal gives press to people doing deals," said Frank Murphy, president and chief executive officer of Morton Plant Health System, Clearwater, Fla., a SunHealth shareholder.
Murphy said it doesn't surprise him that, because Columbia has grown rapidly through acquisitions, the for-profit chain gets more media attention.
"Morton Plant has done one deal, and we have had one story," he said, referring to Morton Plant's merger last year with Mease Health Care.
But what irks Murphy and other not-for-profit executives is the perception in the national press that Columbia is more integrated than not-for-profit healthcare systems and that Columbia gets lower prices on its supplies.
"Just because Columbia has acquired a number of facilities doesn't mean they have the processes in place (to make it work)," Murphy said. "Columbia didn't invent continuum of care."
Over the years, dozens of the nation's more than 300 not-for-profit systems have been integrating hospitals, ambulatory-care facilities, physician clinics, home health, insurance products and other healthcare services on a regional basis.
On supply prices, Murphy said, "I don't think (Columbia has) any basis for saying they get lower prices on supplies and contracts. We are very competitive."
But Murphy added that not-for-profits need to be more aggressive in pointing out their advantages and how their alliances garner the same or better group-purchasing prices. "We don't need to beat on our chests like Columbia does, but we need to do a better job in getting our message across," he said.
As part of VHA and SunHealth's national campaign, the two alliances have developed a "communications kit" to help their hospitals inform communities about the differences in the two sectors and the benefits of not-for-profit ownership.
Included in the kit is a proposed letter to the editor intended to "set the record straight" about claims made by Columbia and other investor-owned organizations (See graphic).
In addition to VHA and SunHealth, several other not-for-profit alliances purchase large amounts of supplies and pharmaceutical products for their shareholders and members.
San Diego-based American Healthcare Systems purchased $4 billion in supplies for its 1,000 hospitals. Premier Health Alliance, based in Westchester, Ill., purchased about $1 billion worth for its 50 partners.
Recent announcements from Columbia/HCA and other investor-owned healthcare chains have fueled renewed interest in the growth of the for-profit healthcare sector. Words like "behemoth," "colossal" and "goliath" are being used by the media to describe these companies, with implications that the for-profit sector is expanding its healthcare role. That simply is not true.
As the (insert name and title of board chairman or CEO and name of institution) of a community-minded healthcare provider, I feel obligated to set the record straight.
The size of the for-profit healthcare sector has essentially remained stable for the last decade. For-profit healthcare isn't growing-a small group of for-profit companies are gobbling up fellow for-profits. The focus on this internal growth obscures that fact that 86% of all community hospitals in America continue to be not-for-profit, community-based institutions.
These community-oriented providers believe that a full range of healthcare must be available for all, regardless.............