West Virginia United Health System: Tom Jones, CEO

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Since its origin in 1996, West Virginia United Health System (WVUHS) has grown to be the largest health system in the state. The system includes four hospitals with a combined total of 1100 acute-care beds. Through West Virginia University Hospital, the system serves all of the state, as well as a significant volume of patients from western Maryland and western Pennsylvania. That hospital also attracts national and international patients for specialty services.

Operating with a billion dollar annual budget, WVUHS has more than 1,000 medical staff, including fellows and residents, plus approximately 7,500 employees.

The Decentralized Model

“We are a decentralized system,” says Tom Jones, CEO. “We have a culture that allows individual hospitals to have some flexibility in achieving their quality goals and financial goals and in working with their medical staffs.”

By decentralized, Jones explains that WVUHS sets the benchmarks and the hospitals are given quite a range of flexibility in achieving them. Each hospital has its own board and sets its own pay rates and benefits. “If they are successful at achieving those goals, we leave it up to them. If they are not successful, then the system gets more involved in utilizing methodologies that may have been successful in other hospitals to assist each hospital in meeting their goals.”

The value of the system to its four member hospitals is the decreased cost and increased enhancements in reimbursements they receive through negotiations with third party payers. The benefit comes to approximately $20 million annually. “We also have a culture that is very collaborative in that, by working together, we can decrease our costs and improve quality. We’ve been very successful at that,” says Jones.

Patient Population Challenges

In terms of health status, the people of West Virginia rank poorly. The state came in 39th per America’s Health Rankings, 2008 results. “We have a relatively low per capita income and a significant number of patients who are either uninsured or on Medicaid,” says Jones. “The population is not as educated as it is on a national level. That’s another area we are concerned with. There’s a strong correlation between education and health status, so we need to work closely with our patient populations to make sure, particularly in follow-up care and chronic disease management, that they have the necessary resources for successful outcomes.”

WVUHS works closely with the West Virginia School of Medicine on educational programs and they also help by providing funding for such programs. “One of the programs that they have worked on is obesity in school-age children. By the time they have hit the fifth or sixth grade, all children in the state have had a complete evaluation in terms of obesity and risk for cardiac disease,” says Jones. The program has been able to identify a significant number of children at risk for future cardiac problems. They are working with the university to put programs in place throughout the state that would help provide education to parents and encourage and monitor these children for weight loss and increased exercise.

As well as a focus on educating the public, they dedicate themselves to educating new healthcare workers. “All of our hospitals are very committed to healthcare education,” says Jones. “We either have programs or support programs in local colleges and universities in nursing, ancillary technology, laboratory, respiratory, pretty much across the board in health related careers.”

Capital Investments

Money at WVUHS is currently going toward facilities improvements. A new hospital is being built to replace the 320-bed facility in Clarksburg. The eastern hospitals and the one at Morgantown have undergone about a half million dollars in expansion and renovation in the last half-decade.

An approximate $70 million investment is planned over the next seven years for an electronic medical record system that will be made available to affiliated private practices, as well.

The Blend of Community and Academic

“I think it is somewhat unique in that it’s a system where community hospitals have partnered with an academic health center,” says Jones. I think the glue that holds us together is that all of our facilities have a strong interest in education and research, whether it be medical education for the community or health career education.”

Jones believes the hospitals that are part of the WVUHS joined because they had the same vision. “I think they saw that they could improve quality and decrease cost and better serve their communities by being part of something that was larger,” he says. “We get along extremely well on a management level, on a board level, and in the communities that we serve.”

“We don’t make the product; we try to make the product better in our communities,” Jones says. “I think that is the role of the system. It’s our job, not to build an empire at the system level, but to focus on how we can reduce cost and improve quality.”

-by Tracy Million Simmons

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